Bettye Kearse has always wanted to feel connected to her ancestors, who were among the hundreds of slaves at Montpelier, James Madison’s vast estate in Orange County, Va., who served the nation’s fourth president.
She first visited the estate, which is now a National Trust Historic site, in 1992 while researching her family’s history. According to their oral tradition, Kearse descended from an enslaved cook named Coreen and Madison.
“When I first arrived at Montpelier, I felt like I belonged there, and that all of my ancestors wanted me there and had something to tell me,” she recalled at a meeting in April with a group of other Montpelier descendants and their lawyer, as they battled for co-stewardship of the site.
During that visit, the director of archaeology told Kearse that excavation of the south kitchen had recently started. Kearse was able to see the place where Coreen worked.
“This was a real experience,” Kearse said. “It made her real to me; she wasn't just a name in the stories that I had heard throughout my life.”
The excavation uncovered a groove in the ground –a path well-worn by generations of slaves– that led from the kitchen to the back of the mansion.
“I walked in that groove, which meant to me I was literally walking in the footsteps of an ancestor,” added Kearse, author of the award-winning The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family.
Kearse, is one of a group of descendants of enslaved Black people at Montpelier who have spent years connecting the dots between being held in bondage by a U.S. president and the present day.
On May 16, the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), an organization whose members are descendants of Madison’s slaves or from nearby plantations, achieved their goal of equal co-stewardship of the historic site. After years of battling for equal governance, the mostly white Montpelier Foundation board of directors finally voted to appoint 11 new members to the board who are nominated by the MDC.
“As our nation grapples with and even grieves over the racial injustices of this day, the work of the Montpelier Foundation is all the more important: teaching the lessons of the living legacy of President James Madison, studying the past and possibilities of our Constitution, and sharing across our Republic and beyond the ongoing story of those enslaved at Montpelier,” Rev. Cornell Williams Brooks, a newly appointed board member and former NAACP president and CEO, stated.
Montpelier, the sprawling 2,650-acre plantation, was the home of a president who helped shape the Constitution, as well as a plantation that enslaved hundreds of African Americans. As a National Trust Historic site, it’s a monument to Madison and the enslaved community, a museum, research center and archaeological site that tells the story of the past.
Citing a Southern Poverty Law Center study, MDC says that the history of slavery is often mistaught, including errors of fact and misrepresentation. Those errors and misrepresentations shape contemporary views of race. The descendant community wants to have meaningful input on the slave narratives of Montpelier.
To that end, descendants of Madison’s slaves participated in the inaugural National Summit on Teaching Slavery in 2018 at Montpelier. It included a group of 49 educators, curators, scholars, activists, museum and historic site professionals and descendants.
But the road to having an equal voice on the foundation board wasn’t easy for MDC. A temporary breakthrough came in 2021 when the board announced a groundbreaking agreement to share power with MDC. The agreement was hailed as a model of coequal governing for other historic sites of enslavement.
But the celebration was short-lived, as the agreement unraveled. In March, the board voted to rescind its agreement to share power and fired several senior staffers who supported the descendants group. The decision triggered a widespread backlash, including from the National Trust and a change.org campaign that received more than 11,000 petition signatures.
A resolution came with the May 16 appointment of Brooks and the 10 other new board members, which included former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien and The 1619 Project contributor Leslie Alexander.
The board appointed new leadership on May 25 “to restore the reputation and strengthen the finances of the Presidential plantation and museum.” Board members appointed Elizabeth Chew as interim president and CEO, and elected James French, the MDC’s former chair, as the foundation’s new chairperson.
French, a banking and technology executive, traces his ancestry to a plantation six miles away from Montpelier, where the Founding Father’s family once owned hundreds of enslaved workers.
“No one would have heard of Madison had he not benefited from the 300 people who were enslaved there,” French told The Washington Post about the man who was one of the architects of the U.S. Constitution and introduced the Bill of Rights.
Madison’s slavery legacy
Madison’s grandfather established the family’s plantation, which the former president inherited from his father, a wealthy Virginia planter who owned at least 100 slaves. The family would enslave more than 300 Black people who formed the workforce on the vast plantation and served the family.
In the early 1760s, when Madison was a child, the slaves constructed the brick Georgian home at the center of what they named the Montpelier estate. As a man of privilege and wealth, Madison attained a college education at what is now Princeton University.
Madison often traveled with slaves for his personal needs. He brought a slave named Sawney with him to Princeton and another slave named Billey with him to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He and his wife, Dolley Madison, also brought slaves with them to the White House. At his death, Madison declined to free his slaves and instead transferred ownership to his wife.
Madison did not have any children with Dolley, who had two children from a previous marriage, leaving some historians to suggest that he was infertile. But Kearse, based on her family’s oral history, doubts that suggestion.
“Efforts to tell the truth about race in America are not ivory-tower debates,” said Kearse, adding that the May 14 Buffalo mass shooting by a white supremacist “shows us that lives are at stake.”
In addition to preserving an accurate historical record, it’s important to the descendants that their ancestors are treated with the human dignity that they didn’t receive in their lifetime.
Kearse said she has ancestors buried in the Madison family cemetery, as well as the nearby slave cemetery. On her second trip to Montpelier, she paid her respects to her ancestors who were laid to rest in the slave cemetery, where she had “a very powerful experience.”
“I was drawn to a tree. This is a wooded area with lots of trees. But there was just one tree that seemed to be calling to me,” she recalled. “ And at the base of that tree was a headstone which really was just a chunk of white quartz. And I reached down and touched it and felt the presence of my ancestor right there.”
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