For years, Juneteenth at James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier has been a joyous, spirited and eye-opening time.
This year, with the novel coronavirus dominating daily life, many Juneteenth events across the U.S. have been cancelled or postponed. Others found ways to work around the pandemic’s restraints.
2020’s Juneteenth celebration at the Madisons’ Orange County estate is virtual, lasting all month. Also, folks will still be able to connect to family and communities through Montpelier and a special website created for the occasion by the Orange County African-American Historical Society and Montpelier.
The two organizations, with The Arts Center in Orange, have been collaborating on Juneteenth—celebrated nationally on June 19—since 2016.
Normally, their annual event communicates and honors the history of African Americans in Orange County through storytelling, song and dance, food, hands-on experiences, tours and historic demonstrations.
This year, COVID-19 restrictions kept Montpelier from hosting its popular, daylong Juneteenth celebration.
Instead, Dr. Mary Minkoff, Montpelier’s curator of archaeological collections, built a website for the three organizations that puts all of the historic site’s Juneteenth-related resources in one spot for people to peruse and learn from all June long.
Via the virtual exhibits, anyone can explore the African-American heritage of the father of the U.S. Constitution and architect of the Bill of Rights, as well as its surroundings in Orange County.
The website, ocaahsjuneteenth.org, features the performers, vendors, re-enactors and history that comprise the core of Montpelier’s Juneteenth celebration.
You can celebrate Juneteenth by watching and interacting with performers, musicians, historical interpreters, and artists; support local artists and businesses by buying from Juneteenth vendors; reunite with family, teammates, scouts and friends; and connect with community groups.
Meanwhile, Montpelier is hosting three virtual events about its African American heritage.
On Thursday at 7 p.m., Montpelier’s new president Roy Young and its Director of Archaeology Matthew Reeves will host master teacher J. Drew Lanham for poetry readings, discussion of his award-winning memoir, and analysis of current racial issues in the United States
Dr. Lanham, a wildlife biologist at Clemson University who is on the front lines calling for an end to racist policy and violence against black people, has written “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.” To learn more and join the Zoom book discussion, click here.
On Friday at 2 p.m., the Juneteenth series will feature a virtual walking tour of sites of emancipation at Montpelier with Dr. Matthew Reeves, who leads archaeology and landscape restoration at the 2,600-acre historic site.
Among those sites is the home of George Gilmore and his wife, Polly. George had been enslaved at Montpelier, and generations of their family lived on the plantation.
Today, the Gilmore Cabin is fully restored to its 19th-century appearance.
That is thanks to Rebecca Gilmore Coleman, a co-founder of OCAAHS and descendant of George Gilmore. She led efforts to preserve her ancestor’s log cabin and involve slave descendants in how Montpelier interprets the past.
On Monday, June 25, author Bettye Kearse will discuss her new book, “The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family.”
Dr. Kearse, an essayist and retired pediatrician, is a descendant of an enslaved cook and, according to oral tradition, President James Madison.
In her book, which Kirkus Reviews called “A ‘Roots’ for a new generation, rich in storytelling and steeped in history,” she shares her family story and explores issues of legacy, race and the consequences of telling the whole truth.
Without West Africans’ ancient tradition of griots (men) and griottes (women) reciting stories of their people, Kearse says she wouldn’t have known that she is a descendant of Madison and his slave and half-sister, Coreen.
In 1990, she became the eighth-generation griotte for her family. Their credo is “Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.”
Their motto was intended to be a source of pride, but for Kearse, it echoed with abuses of slavery.
OCAAHS began hosting its Juneteenth celebration in partnership with The Arts Center of Orange in 2006. In 2016, Montpelier joined as a co-host.
Juneteenth is the most popular annual celebration of emancipation in the United States. Today, 46 states, including Virginia, recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday.
It originated in Texas on June 19th to mark the anniversary of Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger’s 1865 proclamation that “the people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’ “
News traveled more slowly in the 19th century and enslavers were slow to accept the end of their most profitable institution, or to tell their enslaved people that was so. Granger’s proclamation came two months after the fall of Richmond, the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the Orange historical society noted.
To follow Montpelier’s Juneteenth events on social media, use the hashtags #VirtualJuneteenth and #OCAAHS.
In June, Montpelier began offering outdoor walking tours and reopened its Museum Shop while following strict social-distancing guidelines.
Montpelier is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. To limit the amount of contact between visitors and staff, it asks visitors to purchase a grounds pass and tour tickets online prior to arrival.