“But the question is, what is right?” she added. “Having this connection with the descendant community is the spark for us to tell a more inclusive, authentic history.”
By the time Mr. Violette found his way to Middle Oak, following clues left behind by Monroe’s records, Mr. Monroe had already visited Highland. He and a cousin, Francis Scott, the family historian, were already chasing their history back to the plantation and learning more about the connections between the president and their community, but no formal conversations had been initiated with the museum.
“We are talking about the pain of slavery and the ties that bind and the start of our story in America,” said Jennifer Saylor Stacy, 56, Ms. Saylor’s daughter and a lifelong member of Middle Oak. “We want to know more about our ancestors and help to give them back a sense of humanity.”
A small group of Monroe descendants gathered at Highland in March 2018 to begin the first of several discussions on how best to incorporate its family history. The meetings have also become a space to talk about the legacy of slavery, racial inequities and reparations, now a part of the national dialogue.
“It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to grow up this close to the plantation where your roots are,” Ms. Saylor said. “Once I knew we came from there, I often wondered what became of our people.”
Separated by centuries and hundreds of miles
Last year, Brent Leggs, executive director of the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, an initiative led by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a group of historians, preservationists, descendants and site directors, gathered for the first National Summit on Teaching Slavery at James Madison’s Montpelier to talk about engaging descendant communities. Both George Monroe Jr. and Ms. Bon-Harper attended. That same year, Monticello opened its first exhibition of the living quarters of Sally Hemings.
“Most of the narrative about the black experience is about a painful past, but we have an opportunity today to uncover the hidden stories of activism and resistance and black agency rooted in slavery,” Mr. Leggs said. “This is about expanding beyond the typical stories of brutality and injustice to stories of black life and black love and how our community overcame the most difficult chapter in American history.”