Buildings tell stories. Faces and voices bring stories to life. For years, the team at James Madison’s Montpelier has been on a journey. It was a mostly unlit path, one where archaeologists, historians, genealogists, and descendants were called upon to illuminate the past. Along the way, we gained a new understanding of what the past on these hallowed grounds represents. It stretches far beyond a timeline and recitation of fact. Instead, it represents a critical part of the fabric of who we are, as Americans, today.
This week, the Montpelier Foundation is proud to reveal the culmination of this journey, The Mere Distinction of Colour. Behind these words are walls painstakingly reconstructed to make tangible the quarters in which the enslaved lived, in service to and in the shadow of the house at Montpelier. Generations worked through the elements, and without their freedom, to sustain both the property and the Madison family. The faces and voices you will see and hear throughout the exhibition, however, make clear the connection between a time centuries in the past to today. In the words of my colleague Elizabeth Chew, it is an experience “still raw and provoking anger and shame, with relevance and consequences in the present.”
David Rubenstein, the benefactor of our journey, cites slavery as the tragic flaw in our Constitution. His investment exposes this flaw in an unprecedented way, and perhaps begins the path to our next journey forward, as a more united and understanding culture in the context of the true price of our freedom. In this sense, Montpelier is rediscovering our role as a cultural institution. Combined with our definitive work on constitutional democracy, the home of the Father of the Constitution grows more relevant every day, across the spectrum of those around the world who work tirelessly to expand the rights of all.
In the coming days and weeks you will hear a lot about this exhibition. As a cultural institution, we hope to inspire others to reflect on America’s past to collectively work towards building a better future guided by the ideals of freedom for all. Beginning June 5 the exhibition will be open to the public. I invite you to visit Montpelier this summer and experience first-hand The Mere Distinction of Colour.