NPR logo

A Researcher Reconnects With Her Ancestors' Slave Past At Madison's Estate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/521804754/521823543" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Researcher Reconnects With Her Ancestors' Slave Past At Madison's Estate

A Researcher Reconnects With Her Ancestors' Slave Past At Madison's Estate

A Researcher Reconnects With Her Ancestors' Slave Past At Madison's Estate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/521804754/521823543" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Michelle Taylor and other participants work to reconstruct slave cabins at Montpelier, the Virginia estate of former President James Madison. Courtesy of Michelle Taylor hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Michelle Taylor

Michelle Taylor and other participants work to reconstruct slave cabins at Montpelier, the Virginia estate of former President James Madison.

Courtesy of Michelle Taylor

Michelle Taylor is 26 years old and keenly interested in the past.

The research associate at Virginia Commonwealth University is taking part in a program to reconstruct the grounds of Montpelier, the former estate of President James Madison, in Virginia. Taylor also has a personal connection to one of the slaves Madison owned, which makes her work rebuilding slave cabins especially meaningful to her.

Through her research at VCU's Virtual Curation Laboratory, Taylor discovered that her aunt's great-grandfather, George Gilmore, was part of the enslaved community at Madison's estate.

"When I looked at the landscape at Montpelier, you see mountains and acres and acres of empty land, and it made me think about my ancestors not having an opportunity to go anywhere, nowhere to run away," Taylor says. "It was very emotional, just being able to know that I had an opportunity — I could have left at any time — but I wanted to be there to make a difference and rebuild this home that represents where my family would have lived during that time period."

Michelle Taylor is participating in a project to help restore slave dwellings at the estate, where her aunt's great-grandfather was a slave. Courtesy of Michelle Taylor hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Michelle Taylor

Michelle Taylor is participating in a project to help restore slave dwellings at the estate, where her aunt's great-grandfather was a slave.

Courtesy of Michelle Taylor

As part of the Log Cabin Expedition at Montpelier, Taylor and other participants are building cabins like the kind slaves lived in on the plantation. They are about the size of an apartment living room, but they housed three to four families at a time.

"Having the log cabins on Montpelier's plantation shows not only a complete story of American history, but it also gives a sense of purpose to those descendants who hadn't been aware of their ancestors' contributions to not only President Madison's estate," Taylor says, "but the contributions and sacrifices they made daily for us now as descendants to be able to live better lives than they did during a time period where they didn't have any choices."

Use audio link above to hear the full story. Kelley Libby is an independent producer. You can follow her @kelleylibby.