The Stories That Shape Us All: The Presentation of Slavery at Public History Sites in Virginia
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While Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Colonial Williamsburg have very different legacies, as public history institutions they have employed similar tactics relating to slavery education, and in some instances worked with one another to create more comprehensive exhibitions, tours, and programs. The work each institution has done over the course of the last few decades has contributed significantly to the present state of slavery education in their spaces. Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Colonial Williamsburg have adopted approaches that best suit their interpretation styles, yet they similarly aim to create programs and content that are more representative of slavery and the people who were enslaved at their sites. They have all come to understand that their histories are incomplete without the stories of the enslaved and their contributions, and the old approaches–to confine them to one space and talk about them passively–are no longer sufficient, and quite frankly never were. Their struggles to simultaneously confront their pasts with slavery education and create more comprehensive content can be seen throughout each site, as new exhibitions that center the lives of the enslaved stand in stark contrast to their outdated language and their museum and education centers. The future of slavery education at Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Colonial Williamsburg relies on each institutions’ willingness to honestly represent enslaved stories and experiences. Each site still struggles to make slavery’s presence visible throughout their properties, as well as, with the exception of Montpelier, make explicit connections between slavery in the United States and the social and political structures present today. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other important American historical figures held hundreds of men, women, and children in bondage for the majority of their lives, and while Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Colonial Williamsburg have become comfortable addressing them as enslavers, most of these institutions still refuse to connect slavery to monumental eras beyond Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Slavery in the United States impacted everyone, everywhere, and its effects, especially in the midst of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the era of mass incarceration and policing, have become more prevalent than ever. As state-wide debates about Critical Race Theory in educational institutions ensue, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Colonial Williamsburg each face important but necessary decisions–do they continue to confront their legacies with poor slavery education and wholeheartedly present enslaved voices, stories, and experiences, or do they remain complacent and inch ever-slowly toward progress in the hopes that one day they will get there?