Meeting John Hope Franklin

On Saturday Michaela and I headed up Rt. 20 from Charlottesville to attend a reunion of descendants of James Madison’s slave population at Montpelier.  The highlight of the visit was a 90 minute discussion between John Hope Franklin and Roger Wilkins.  Simply put, Franklin is one of my intellectual heroes.  His career embodies a strong commitment to racial justice through activism and scholarship.  It would be more accurate to say that his scholarship is in fact a form of activism, and at 92 he is still going strong.  Franklin reflected on his life as a black historian and the challenges of writing black history at a time when the field was non-existent.  I especially enjoyed listening to him discuss why it is so important to tell the story of slavery as part of American history and the perils of ignoring or forgetting the past.  The Q&A was lively which was to be expected given the topic and the audience.  I like to think that my own research on Civil War memory is in a way a form of activism.  I to believe that it is important for a nation to confront its collective past in all of its richness, which includes both moments of great achievement as well as disappointment.  And I am convinced that one can keep this moral goal in mind without it impinging or threatening the integrity of scholarship.

The trip also gave us a chance to see the progress on the renovations of Montpelier.  The changes areCimg0239 quite impressive.  The home is being restored both inside and out to its original plan that would have greeted a visitor in 1820.  It had to be done as anyone who has visited knows that it is very difficult to see the home as Madison’s rather than the Dupont’s.  The original bricks are clearly visible on the outside.  On the inside the home is currently gutted.  Work is being done to restore original doorways and walls; it is a unique opportunity to see a major work-in-progress.

What I was most impressed with was the tour of the home.  Our guide did an excellent job of integrating the story of the slave population into the house tour.  At one point during the earlier discussion Wilkins told a story about visiting Mount Vernon in the mid-1980s with his family.  On the tour the guide talked about the innumerable number of people who visited Washington without once mentioning the slaves who worked the plantation.  He jokingly mentioned that a tourist would have left with the impression that Martha was a very busy wife.  We have indeed come a long way.  Our guide was able to weave the stories of the slaves into her presentation without any difficulty at all and it made for a much more interesting tour.  Madison is the star of the tour.  Much of Madison’s preparation for the Constitutional Convention was done at Montpelier and that story must be told.  At the same time both the home and surrounding grounds are a testament to the many lives whose stories also deserve to be told.  My wife and I have visited Monticello at least 10 times, but I am convinced that we heard more about slaves on one tour of Montpelier than all of those previous tours combined.

Additional photographs from the day can be found over at my flickr page.

3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2007 @ 19:47

    Brooks and Larry, — Your comments reflect the fact that a great deal has indeed changed.

  • Larry Cebula Jun 12, 2007 @ 18:42

    There is still room for improvement, but we are doing so much better interpreting slavery at public places. I recently picked up a 1963 official visitor’s guide to Mount Vernon. In its 60 or so pages the words “slave” and “slavery” never appear! Even in the sections about the kitchen and the stables.

    A professor at William and Mary once told me about a student who researched the interpretation of slavery at Colonial Williamsburg. He said that in the 60s and 70s CW interpreters were trained never to speak of slaves but always of “servants.” The breakthrough, he said, came with the TV show Roots. The summer after Roots swarms of tourists showed up asking about slavery. “Well,” the nervous interpreters replied, “the servants lived out back and…” No no, the tourists demanded, where did the slaves live? Television and the marketplace (rather than scholarship) forced CW to improve its interpretation of slavery.*

    *This conversation was a dozen years ago and involved both heresay and a lot of beer. Details may not be accurate.

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 12, 2007 @ 12:23

    I’ve never made it to Montpelier, oddly enough. I’m well aware of the restoration efforts, and they are very impressive. I have been to Mount Vernon and (several times) to Monticello (that’s what happens when you go to UVa and attemd pfprofessional meetings at Charlottesville). Mount Vernon treats slavery differently now, and I can attest to the changing treatment of slavery at Monticello over three decades. Some of us who advised the Ulysses S. Grant site at St. Louis also empahsized the role of White Haven as plantation headquarters, and the story of the slaves is represented there.

    You must be a busy blogmaster this morning. 🙂

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