One of the most fortunate things about volunteering at Federal Hall National Memorial this summer has been its broadening of my interests. The experience has less taken me in a different direction than expanded my awareness of American and even international history. This is especially true of the Revolutionary and Early American periods. I have a larger, more holistic approach to my scholarship than I did at the start of the summer, and really dating back to the beginning of the calendar year when we became members of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Among other things I have been following the social media pages and online resources of various people and institutions with which I was unfamiliar just two months ago. One of them linked the other day to this extraordinary New York Times piece about James Monroe and the enslaved persons who lived and worked on his Virginia estate.
In a living example of Faulkner’s notion about the past being neither over nor past, it has developed that upwards of one hundred African Americans still live within a short distance of Ash Lawn – Highland, the 3,500 acre property Monroe purchased in 1793 while a U.S. senator from Virginia. Highland is adjacent to Jefferson’s Monticello. By all accounts as known today, Monroe did not father children in the manner Jefferson did with Sally Hemings; the Monroe connections to this local community relate to the conditions of servitude. Scholars have been piecing the history together over the past several years and adding this new knowledge to the interpretive experience at Ash Lawn – Highland, which is today owned by James Monroe’s alma mater William & Mary. The story extends further than Virginia however; to pay off debts Monroe sold some of his enslaved persons to an estate near Monticello, Florida in Jefferson County called Casa Bianca. Some of them, or more likely their descendants, showed up on census records and voter rolls after the Civil War. Read the whole thing.
(top image, RebelAt via Wikimedia Commons; bottom, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)