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James Madison Museum Will Now Have Input From Descendants Of People He Enslaved


Montpelier in Orange, Va., was the family home of James Madison that's become a museum to celebrate the fourth president of the United States, who's also considered an architect of the Bill of Rights. Montpelier was also where hundreds of enslaved people lived and worked in bondage for the Madison family. Descendants of those who were enslaved have asked to have a greater voice in the museum, and now the board of directors says the Montpelier Descendants Committee will have equal say in the museum's administration. The arrangement is called structural parity.

James French is chair of the board of the Montpelier Descendants Committee and joins us now. Mr. French, thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES FRENCH: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This was not an easy process, I understand.

FRENCH: No, it wasn't. It was long in coming. It involved some very delicate negotiations over the last year and a half. But it was really accelerated after the murder of George Floyd, where it really became a matter of urgency because we had the confluence of where the Constitution was essentially conceived and the fact that constitutional rights were being deprived.

SIMON: Can I get you to explain your family history?

FRENCH: Sure. James Madison is from Orange, Va., and his family purchased a very large tract of land in the early 18th century. And abutting that land are other large tracts of what were formerly plantations. One of the large families - there was the Newman (ph) family, and another one is the Barbour family. And James Barbour was the 18th governor of Virginia. He was also a senator from Virginia, and he led the troops in the War of 1812. And so you had James Barbour and James Newman (ph), who were neighbors of Madison, and they had children - each of the Newmans and the Barbours had children - were their slaves. And I am a descendant of the children of James Barbour and James Newman. And the white families all intermarried, and so did the families of the enslaved.

SIMON: What's it like for you to see Montpelier, to be so close to it, to see tour buses go there?

FRENCH: For the longest period of time, it was a very remote place. It was foreboding. It was an institution, and it did not feel welcoming. Contrasted to that is the history of the family, which was, you know, like any family. It was where we're from. It's where I can look on the wall and see the paintings of my ancestors who I never met and know that I stand on their shoulders.

SIMON: What needs to be done in your view? What more do you want people to know? What do you want them to see? How do you want to help bring that about?

FRENCH: What we want through our experience to help share with the country is that narratives are very important in shaping how people relate to power. And we were able to resolve a power imbalance because we felt that we had a very legitimate claim to doing that, but also that it was important for the country. But what really needs to be done is the country must understand that there are invisible founders, invisible stakeholders without whom there would be no Constitution and there would be no United States.

And the Madison family was essentially outnumbered 24-1 by its enslaved population, and that really means that they all grew up in an African American community. So everything that they are and were essentially derived from their relationship to their community, and that's from their intellectual achievements to their wealth, which was stolen wealth. And so what we need to do is, as a nation, is to bring these narratives from the periphery to the center so that people can understand that the founding of the country is an inclusive narrative. It's an inclusive story.

SIMON: And I have to ask without putting you on the spot, what were some of the, I'm sure, difficult conversations that you had?

FRENCH: We had to deal with all the emotions that you can imagine, especially, as I said, after the murder of George Floyd. We felt we were powerless, and the board was very powerful. And so we had to use more than persuasive arguments about how fulfilling it would be for us to move in this direction. We identified the power imbalance, and we engaged the board on that issue. We feel very strongly that if you can sit down at a table as equals, there are very few problems you can't solve.

SIMON: James French is chair of the board of the Montpelier Descendants Committee. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

FRENCH: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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