For institutions grappling with legacies of slavery, it is important to include the voices of descendants to expand the historical narratives that have often excluded them and to start working toward reconciliation based on a more truthful account of slavery in the U.S.
That was the advice offered by panelists at an event Thursday hosted by The Harvard & Legacy of Slavery Memorialization Committee. The speakers were representatives of James Madison’s Montpelier, a museum of American history and a memorial to the fourth U.S. president and to the enslaved community.
Due to its pioneering work in including the voices of descendants in teaching about slavery at museums and historic sites, Montpelier is at the center of the national conversation about how institutions are wrestling with the lasting impact of slavery, said Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of American History and professor of African and African American studies, who moderated the event.
“Montpelier was the plantation of three generations of the family of James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth U.S. president, and the 300 men, women, and children that his family enslaved for over 120 years,” said Elizabeth Chew, senior director of museum programs and chief curator at Montpelier, in explaining the rationale. “To tell the full story of that place, we can’t do it honestly without the voices of descendant communities. It’s the only way to tell the whole truth.”
The panel’s advice comes as Harvard has embarked on an effort to examine its own connections to slavery. Last April a report by the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery found the University had extensive financial ties to slavery during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The memorialization committee was formed to work on one of the report’s recommendations: to memorialize enslaved individuals whose labor was instrumental in the establishment and development of the University.
In 2018, Montpelier, in partnership with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, published a rubric for best practices for museums and historic sites to engage descendant communities in the interpretation of slavery to “create a more honest and equitable version of history for future generations.”
At Montpelier, the definition of who can qualify as a descendant is broad and includes individuals who have a known genealogical and historical connection to enslaved persons at the site or to those enslaved at nearby plantations and any descendant of the African diaspora, said Chew.
The role of such descendants in museums, historic sites, and institutions that were once places of enslavement can help address the legacies of slavery, but the risk is that their presence can be tokenized or used only to extract information.
Historically that has been the case, said Hannah Scruggs, a Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who has worked with the Montpelier descendant community. And yet, increasingly, it’s the pressure of descendant communities that is forcing institutions to reckon with their histories of slavery, she said.
Institutions can play a role in the way the history of slavery is taught by including the voices of descendants, said the Rev. Lawrence E. Walker, president of the Montpelier Descendants Committee. The starting point is that institutions acknowledge that slavery played a central role in the history of the nation and lead efforts to humanize the experience of the enslaved.
“People didn’t like the story about Thomas Jefferson and the Hemingses,” said Walker. “Descendant communities have oral histories that for generations have been ignored and dismissed, but that doesn’t stop them from being true. Now we’re saying, ‘Allow descendants to come to the table’ to talk about a way forward that could be a light for the future.”
The moment is ripe for many institutions to recognize that their origin stories are closely tied to slavery, said James French, chair of the Montpelier Foundation.
“We’re trying to create a complete version of history,” said French. “The origin story of the country is very complicated. We’ve been taught a very simplistic version, and at Montpelier, we have the opportunity, with the Constitution exhibit on the second floor of the house, to really complicate that origin story in a way that can only be of benefit.”
Asked by Brown for advice on the steps toward memorializing enslaved individuals at Harvard, panelists recommended that the University freely, openly, and without reticence include the views of descendant communities.
“At Montpelier, there were times when there were concerns that my having a voice as a descendant was going to destroy Montpelier,” said Walker. “What benefit would that mean to my celebration of my ancestors to destroy something that they built? It makes no sense. Institutions have to be open to recognizing the power of adding voices. It’s not a zero-sum game.”