Last October 2019 we had the privilege of joining the Monroes as they shared their family’s stories and experiences with French journalist Stéphanie Le Bras, of Le Monde newspaper. The article appeared on Friday, March 27, 2020, and you can read the English translation by Miranda Burnett, in collaboration with Sara Bon-Harper.
Monroe’s Plantation in the United States, the Heavy Legacy of the Descendants of Slaves
Stéphanie Le Bars
Le Monde Friday March 27, 2020 Copyright 2020 Le Monde all rights reserved
American history has long obscured it: the first presidents of the United States, such as the fifth president James Monroe, were slavers. The ancestors of George, Ada or Jennifer were slaves at Highland, his plantation in Virginia. A place that has become a museum to which these descendants have recently shed light on what slavery was.
All their lives, the Monroes have known. Vaguely. Without really saying it. But, from generation to generation, they knew. These Black American families, settled in the vicinity of Charlottesville (Virginia), suspected that their surname was not unrelated to that of one of the most illustrious Americans in history: James, fifth president of the United States, father of the doctrine of the same name, landowner and, therefore, in this Virginia of the early nineteenth century, slaveholder.
All his life, George Monroe, age 67, his son with the same first name, age 46, their cousin Ada, age 80, and some of their kin clearly imagined that the Highland estate, name of the president’s former plantation, sheltered a part of their family history, as much as that of Thomas Jefferson’s colleague.
An Unresolved Past
We are far from the cotton fields of the South, the wet banks of the Mississippi irrigating immense properties entered into the collective imagination as symbols of slavery. The green pastures, the farms bordered by immaculate white fences rather evoke Normandy or Auvergne. Nevertheless, the history of the United States is truly there. This corner of Virginia is a concentrate of American tensions, a land bruised by the battles of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Several miles from Highland, Charlottesville became, in August 2017, the epicenter of white supremacy and its ill winds. After a rally by the far right nostalgic for the Old South, a counter-demonstrator was killed in a car ram attack.
“All my life, I couldn’t utter the word plantation. It stirred up too many terrible things. Why would we want to visit a place where our ancestors were tortured?” George Monroe, Sr.
Faced with this unresolved past, no Monroe, until recently, had wanted to cover the few miles of bucolic country roads leading to the former president’s property, surrounded by well-kept fields. George Monroe, Sr. had, for nothing in the world, followed the magnificent avenue of ash trees leading to the imposing statue of the great man, near the white wooden house, open to the public from the 1930s and transformed into a museum more than forty years ago. To what good? He would inevitably come to the slave quarters, a series of tidy and renovated small houses, romantic testimonies revisited to a reality otherwise cruel. “All my life, I have not been able to utter the word plantation,” explains this retired civil servant, meeting on the spot with members of his family and the museum’s curator, Sara Bon-Harper. “For us, it stirred up too many terrible things. Why would we want to visit a place where our ancestors were tortured?” asks the Virginian with a rolling accent. Concerned with precision, he chooses his words calmly, but his tone, calm, hardly conceals a background of anger.
The same reluctance has long held back Jennifer Stacy, passionate about genealogy, from going “where it all started.” Monroe on her mother’s side, this scholarly federal employee in Washington, set foot on the estate for the first time in 2017. “When your name is Monroe and you are black, you can well imagine how things have happened. It is painful to think that our ancestors were human beings possessed by other human beings. We’d rather stay away from this story,” says the great-great-great granddaughter of Ned, one of the few former slaves of the Monroe plantation whose family preserved that knowledge. The plot of land that was granted to him is still in the family. Because the black Monroes of 2020 are a direct descendant of the 250 or so slaves owned by the statesman. By selling them with his property in 1828, he bequeathed them his family name, an elementary right from which these human beings torn from Africa had been robbed on their arrival on the American continent.
“Involving the descendants of slaves in the interpretation of this period was obvious.” Sara BonHarper, curator of the museum
Three years ago, on the strength of this conviction, George’s son, the same massive build, the same outspokenness as his father, committed the unthinkable: one Saturday, this banker presented himself at the museum ticket counter, declared his name Monroe, explained that his ancestors had worked there and that he wanted to know more about this ‘connection’. “I passed in front of the property sign since I was a child, I knew there was a connection, but the elders never wanted to talk about this too much,” he explains around a snack served on the estate. His first steps on the spot overwhelmed him: the emotion of walking in the footsteps of his chained ancestors, touching trees they had been able to touch, browsing the buildings they had built. Watching over the property, a centuries-old oak tree, nicknamed ‘the witness tree,’ seemed to him particularly evocative of this link.
Reevaluating the image of “great men”
The museum’s curator, Sara Bon-Harper, immediately understood the value of this meeting. “Involving the descendants of slaves in the interpretation of this period was obvious. This place was as much their home as that of James Monroe.” And this academic goes further. “Whose story are we telling here? And why was this story to be told exclusively by white people?” asks the anthropologist and archaeologist.
The ongoing collaboration between the institution and the descendants will allow the museum to include the history of the African American Monroe families in the story of the plantation and to have them actively participate in the choices of the museum. “We have seven or eight generations of Monroes buried in the local cemetery,” says Jennifer Stacy. “My grandparents, born at the end of the 19th century, had the memory of their own grandparents, kept in slavery here. However, these stories are rarely presented and, unfortunately, we have no objects that attest to them.” She herself felt ‘familiarity’ the first time she set foot on these lands. “It was as if something very old came back to my memory; I felt it in my soul, more than in my head.”
“We have to re-explain that there were no ‘good’ masters, that brutality was inherent in the possession of human beings.” Sharon Hiner, guide at Highland
This project also provides an opportunity to reassess the image of “great men” and their ambiguous relationship with slavery. How can we pretend to lay the foundations for a democratic society based on human rights, while reducing other men to the state of affairs that we can appropriate? The question torments the descendants of slaves as much as the academic. This question has been addressed for some years in other properties of the Founding Fathers: that of George Washington at Mount Vernon or that of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. In one, an exhibition on slavery is presented permanently at the entrance to the museum. In the other, Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves and their six children, is now amply told. “We went from celebration to exploration,” explains Sara Bon-Harper. “But slavery remains poorly taught across the country, especially when one approaches the biography of the Founding Fathers. However, the complexity of the story must be taken into account.”
At Highland, since 2016, guides have been able to answer (mostly white) visitors’ questions relating to slavery. “We must re-explain that there were no ‘good’ masters, that brutality was inherent in the possession of human beings,” notes guide Sharon Hiner. But, on the site, the reconstructed slave quarters near a guest house hosting weddings and receptions. An awkward mix of genres that Sara Bon-Harper hopes to remedy soon.
Under the impetus of his son, George Monroe, Sr., who did not want to confront the errors of history, finally took the step two years ago. “People need to know where they come from,” he says today. Especially since the family floated the possibility of a blood connection with James Monroe. A genetic test carried out by George Jr. caused a bit of trouble: 27% of his DNA is of European origin. Nothing allows, for the moment, to deduce a relationship with the former president. “This type of discovery puts the concept of race into perspective and should make it possible to have more peaceful debates on racial questions in the United States,” hopes this history buff. “The more we know about this not so ancient history, the more chances we have of building bridges between communities,” also confirms Martin Violette, a former guide from Highland, whose research on the earlier Monroes helped to discover their descendants in Virginia and in Florida, where some of the Head of State’s slaves were sold.
Because, for all, the work of memory carried out with the managers of Highland must make it possible to say as much about the past as about the present or the future. “This approach makes possible a form of reconciliation with the past. Because there is still among the descendants of slaves a mixture of anger, shame, sadness, desolation,” confirms Jennifer Stacy. She always feels a strong emotion at the thought of these lost generations. “I am rather a merciful person, but slavery, that, I cannot forgive.”
“We still live with the memory of segregation, which was the historical result of slavery.” Ada Monroe
Especially since, like her cousins, she notices how much the legacy of slavery and the ravages of segregation, which prevailed until the 1960s, still weigh on American society. Coming from the middle class, the fifty-something who was the first in her family to attend a non-segregated class – racial integration in school dates from 1953 – remembers the ‘shame’ experienced when it came to slavery in history lessons. “At the end of the 1960s, we always had instructions: not to look whites in the eye to 4 avoid problems. And even today, our boys are taught how to get home alive if they are stopped by the police for running a red light!” she laments in an allusion to police violence against young blacks.
A work of memory still resisted
“We still live with the memory of segregation, which was the historical result of slavery”, confirms Ada, between anger and fatalism. Not a wrinkle mars her face when memories come back. But the hand of the elderly woman seated on a sofa tightens on her cane at the mention of the ‘sufferings’ of her youth. “We couldn’t use the same transport, the same bathrooms, the same restaurants as the whites. When we went to a store, we were followed, because the sellers were afraid that we would steal. We couldn’t say what we thought.” In shoe or clothing stores, Blacks were not allowed to try on the items.
As in a tragically logical sequence, George, Jr. adds: “We have more rights today, but it’s always difficult. Racism is deeply rooted. I discovered it in an obvious way when I arrived in a university, majority white. In work too, we have to do more than white people for the same salary or to get promoted.” He also evoked mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects black men, revealing persistent discrimination.
Inevitably, the conversation also drifts over the question of reparations due to the descendants of slaves. “Our ancestors were deprived of their rights, their culture, their identity; something must be done to make up for this loss,” says George Sr. This question regularly agitates American society and has resurfaced during the primaries of the Democratic Party. For many, the key lies in education more than a check. “It’s about giving new generations the tools to have a better life,” said Jennifer Stacy. In the coming months, Sara Bon-Harper hopes to spark discussions around this question.
But not all Monroes welcome this work of memory led by a handful of them. “We have strong heads in the family and you must earn their trust: they were skeptical about the interest of this collaboration with the people of Highland,” says George Jr. “Especially, some still think that we can still not trust Whites,” deciphers his father bluntly. “We are always afraid that they will harm us,” says Ada in her gentle quavering voice.
But these Monroes are also the proud descendants of those who have gone through the worst trials. “Not all of them survived the Atlantic crossing by boat, working conditions on the plantations, segregation. Our ancestors, yes. Their strength has irrigated all generations to our era,” believes George Jr., determined to put his story forward and write it down in the story of the Monroe family. Whites and Blacks combined.
Translated by Miranda RW Burnett