A Researcher Reconnects With Her Ancestors' Slave Past At Montpelier, James Madison's Estate Michelle Taylor is taking part in a project to reconstruct slave cabins at Montpelier, the estate of President James Madison. Through her research, she discovered a personal connection to the site.
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A Researcher Reconnects With Her Ancestors' Slave Past At Madison's Estate

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

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

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MICHELLE TAYLOR: Behind me, we have two people working on a log cabin. They're breaking the log apart with an axe.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Michelle Taylor is at a cabin-building workshop in Montpelier, the former estate of President James Madison in Virginia. It's part of a program to help reconstruct the grounds of the estate, including its slave dwellings.

TAYLOR: It's the size of an apartment living room with the capacity to hold three, four families at a time.

MCEVERS: Michelle Taylor grew up in Detroit. She's 26 years old and has studied anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She's now a research associate at VCU's Virtual Curation Laboratory. And through research, she learned about her personal connection to Madison's estate.

TAYLOR: George Gilmore was a part of the enslaved community at Montpelier. George Gilmore is my Aunt Lucy's great-grandfather.

MCEVERS: Independent producer Kelley Libby recently caught up with Michelle Taylor in Montpelier. She sent us Taylor's story about studying the past hands on.

TAYLOR: The corridors where the enslaved people lived - they lived in different parts of the plantation, particularly with the field-slave corridor. That would be the slaves that lived not in close proximity to President Madison but would have also been responsible for cultivating wheat and rye on the plantation.

I had took a break outside, and 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. It was just very emotional being able to know that I had an opportunity. I could've 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Make sure your lines are good, you know?

TAYLOR: We had, like, a presentation the first day. And it showed us the chainsaw and the axe. And I said, I'm never going to be able to use a chainsaw or an axe (laughter). But then eventually I picked it up. I worked with the people here, practiced it over and over. And by the second day, I was using it myself with no one around.

I feel as if it's an honor and a privilege because we're still at an advantage. We're working inside of a barn. We're working with higher technology tools as well as tools from the Civil War era. But it reminds me of what my ancestors could've went through to some degree. So every day, I go home, and I'm like, oh, my arms hurt; oh, my legs hurt. But I'm going home to bed. I'm going home to a roof, a foundation. My day ends at 4 o'clock versus their days that go on.

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 but the contributions and sacrifices they made daily for us now as descendants to be able to live better lives than they did during that time period where they didn't have any choices.

MCEVERS: That's Michelle Taylor, one of the people taking part in a log cabin expedition at Montpelier, the estate of President James Madison.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW ORDER SONG, "AGE OF CONSENT")

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