James Madison is known as the “father of the Constitution.” But while he and the convention delegates built the country on paper, slaves were building it everywhere else.
Today, Madison’s historic home Montpelier is open to the public. Visitors can explore the mansion, the Madison family cemetery, acres of picturesque hills, and learn more about Montpelier’s enslaved community by touring slaves’ quarters.
Montpelier is the first presidential home to honor the lives and contributions of slaves with a Juneteenth celebration.
Juneteenth is an annual celebration honoring Major General Gordon Granger and Union soldiers who arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that all slaves were officially free. The news came in 1865, more than two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and months after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Granger delivered the joyous announcement on June 19, 1865 and Juneteenth (June + Nineteenth) began.
The celebration at Montpelier on June 17, 2017, was open to the public and included music performances, special tours, historical reenactments, lectures, kids activities, and more.
But perhaps the best thing about Montpelier’s Juneteenth celebration was its guest list.
Descendants of James Madison’s slaves and other black families known to live in the area at the time were all invited.
Leontyne Clay Peck is one of the descendants. She grew up in West Virginia, but after moving to nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, 14 years ago and digging into her genealogy, she discovered her ancestors were from the area.
“I felt very comfortable in Madison County and … my spirit felt very familiar when I was at Montpelier and this area in general,” she says. “I know now that’s because of my ancestors.”
Today, Peck is active in the Montpelier descendant community. Three years ago, she even took part in an archaeological search on the property to uncover artifacts near the slave quarters. For Peck, it was a spiritual experience.
“When I was touching the dirt and digging, I felt close to the people who were there. Maybe that could have been my relative or someone else’s relative,” she says. “I felt very comfortable, like the ancestors were saying, ‘Don’t forget about us. We were here.'”
This year’s Juneteenth marked the first time many of the descendants saw a new exhibit on Montpelier’s enslaved community.
“The Mere Distinction of Colour,” which opened June 5, is a multimedia installation offering visitors the chance to hear stories of slaves at Montpelier told by their living descendants. It also includes some of the artifacts excavated by volunteers and archaeologists at the site. The exhibition studies slavery and its political and economic impact through the lens of the Constitution, a large part of James Madison’s legacy.
Celebrating the lives and contributions of enslaved people is what Juneteenth is all about.
Whether you’re at a presidential home, a neighborhood block party or somewhere in between, take a moment June 19 to honor their memory. Enslaved people built America and their descendants sustain America. For that, we are forever grateful.