James Madison's Montpelier We The People Spring 2017 Montpelier_WTP_Spring2017_FINAL-1-web - Page 6

WE THE PEOPLE THE MERE DISTINCTION OF COLOUR Bringing the story of enslavement from Madison’s time to ours. BY ELIZABETH CHEW Interpreting slavery at museums and historic sites has become commonplace in the second decade of the 21st century. Since the early 1990s, many museums have been educating the public about slavery, focusing on the physical realities of labor “from can’t see to can’t see;” the diverse knowledge and specialized skills possessed by enslaved African Americans running plantation operations and houses, often under brutal conditions; and the resilience and achievements of enslaved people in creating home, community, and culture within a system that denied their basic humanity. Visitors to historic sites have learned about slavery through many interpretive modalities: furnished living and working spaces, both original and reconstructed; first-person interpretation; living history demonstrations; third-person guided tours; digital interactives; and more traditional gallery exhibitions. MARK YOUR CALENDARS: The Mere Distinction of Colour opens on JUNE 5, 2017 Montpelier’s interpretation, with both guided tours and furnished spaces, has incorporated stories of slavery and the enslaved community since 1997, when the National Trust still operated the site. Since 2000, when The Montpelier Foundation was created, staff researchers have been engaged in documentary and genealogical research to understand the Montpelier plantation and its enslaved community and have, to date, identified nearly 300 slaves by name and located living descendants of five. In this same 17-year period, archaeological research under the direction of Matt Reeves has led to an overall understanding of the physical plantation landscape and the relative locations of farm operations, plantation industries, and the dwellings of enslaved domestic and agricultural workers. Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s 2012 book on Paul Jennings, A Slave in the White House, filled out the remarkable story of the best-documented Montpelier slave. David Rubenstein’s transformational 2014 gift is enabling us to put research into practice by expanding our interpretation of slavery and the enslaved community. Following the gift, we began planning ways to return slavery to the Montpelier landscape, through further archaeology and reconstructions of the slave dwellings and work buildings adjacent to the main House. We also began organizing an exhibition on slavery entitled The Mere Distinction of Colour that would begin in the cellar level of the House and extend into the reconstructed buildings in the South Yard. The title comes from something Madison said during 6