It is a question that has long vexed America: How do we teach our history of slavery? This month, James Madison’s Montpelier started working on an answer.
For three days, nearly 50 people gathered at Montpelier, talking for hours, hashing out details for a first-ever guidebook — a set of standardized best practices, to say here’s what responsible, thoroughly-researched education about slavery looks like.
Nothing like this exists yet. The history and enduring legacies of slavery have never been fully told in this country, and so, for better or worse, everyone’s been creating their own process, figuring it out as they go along, says Kat Imhoff, president and CEO of Montpelier, which earlier this year opened an extensive $6 million exhibit on slavery and the enslaved. "We wanted to say 'Yes, we’ve done this permanent exhibition at Montpelier, but what more can we do?' And as we reflected on that, we were really struck that so many other places are really struggling in the same conversation," Imhoff noted.
So they put out the call, and four-dozen people from 13 states answered. The group met in a giant conference room. Executive directors sat next to archeologists and professors, activists and historians. Scattered throughout were descendants of African-Americans enslaved at what we now call historic sites.
George Monroe, Junior's family was enslaved by America’s fifth president James Monroe at Ash Lawn-Highland outside Charlottesville. George did a massive amount of research and then reached out. "I said 'Hey, hello, my last name is Monroe and I think we may be linked to this particular community," Monroe remembered. "It was kind of like 'Well hmm, interesting. We didn’t know you guys were there.'"
Sitting next to George was Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of Ash Lawn-Highland for the last five years. "We'd been, it’s not too strong to say, ignorant of the history and the attachments of the descendants of enslaved people from Highland, right here and right nearby," Bon-Harper admitted. "So we have a lot of making up to do for having been ignorant that long and the fact that we get to share this weekend and these conversations will be, I think, an incredible framework."
George Monroe said he definitely agreed. Now, Monroe and Bon-Harper are collaborating on what the site’s larger visitor story will be. That’s exactly what the weekend was about: How do sites best engage descendant communities? Do they hire them on staff, on boards? How do they empower them to tell their story?
Ashley Rogers is the director of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. She says historically, those storytelling roles have been closely guarded. "That’s a really comfortable spot, to be the person who’s calling the shots and saying, ‘This is how things were, we’re the knowledge-keepers. That’s what we do, we collect the knowledge and we keep it and then we disseminate it to you.’ But the problem is that museums are vastly white organizations. They’re vastly upper class organizations. And they have in the past and even today done really destructive things to marginalized communities," Rogers noted.
But it’s not just historic sites and museums. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently issued an extensive report finding that schools across the country are doing a dismal job at teaching slavery. Maureen Costello is the report’s author and says the past is very much alive. "We are never going to be able to deal with the profound racial disparities we have and with the racial injustice we have now unless we bring people back to really talk about what really happened during slavery," Costello argues.
Teachers teach what’s available to them, says Costello. It’s a food-chain: better engagement with descendants leads to better research and information, which leads to better education and, ultimately, better informed decisions.
Niya Bates is the public historian of slavery and African American life at Monticello. "We’re not just stuffy historians in some attic," Bates says. "We’re out here making a real difference in the community."
The group aims to issue a final report later this year, with a scalable set of best-practices and suggested guidelines.