A nation that began by declaring that all men were created equal kept, at the same time, more than half a million black people in bondage. "The Mere Distinction of Colour"—a moving new exhibit at Montpelier, the home of President James Madison—explores this unhappy historical paradox as it shows how people who were treated as property lived and worked as families and as a community.
The reconstructed cabins in the South Yard, just a couple of hundred feet from the main house, feature videos where the descendants of the plantation's enslaved community speak vividly about the struggles and triumphs of their ancestors. Owing in part to the numerous gambling debts incurred by his wastrel stepson John Payne Todd, Madison died owing money and did not free any of Montpelier's enslaved people.
The heartrending film Fate in the Balance, screened in the cellar, centers around Ellen Stewart, the 15-year-old daughter of one of Dolley Madison's maids. An actress playing the role of Stewart describes how Dolley sold off members of her family, one by one, to pay Todd's debts.
Madison's former body servant—Paul Jennings, who purchased his own freedom—helped Stewart escape on a boat sailing to New Jersey. But the vessel was caught, and Dolley sent Stewart to Baltimore to be sold. Fortunately, an abolitionist campaign raised enough money to buy her freedom.
Visitors should certainly see the main house, but it's the life stories of the enslaved people that will stick with you when you leave.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Mere Distinction of Colour".