The Highland was an plantation possessed and kept running by the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe. It was constructed and kept up by African Americans subjugated in the estate when subjection was a flourishing establishment.
Now the descendants of these enslaved Africans are coming out to tell their stories in collaboration with the managers of plantation as it comes to terms with its links to slavery.
Monroe, one of America’s founding fathers, became a slave owner at just 16 after his father bequeathed him a number of enslaved Africans including a boy named Ralph. His wife had also inherited property including ‘several slaves’ from her father. It is reported that through his lifetime, he had owned about as 250 enslaved persons and did not free any of them.
This is despite the fact that he stated in 1829 that slavery is “one of the evils still remaining, incident to our Colonial system.” As a slave owner, he also said that abolition should be gradual to avoid disrupting social order and the economy. Monroe was also an advocate for the relocation of freed African Americans to either the Caribbean and Africa.
During his tenure as governor, Monroe quelled one of Virginia’s slave insurrections. Ten years later, it would be found out that he was one of the largest slave owners at the time with 49 enslaved people on his plantation who run it as Monroe was deep into the politics of the time.
In 1826, an enslaved black couple fled from the plantation, prompting Monroe to place an ad in the newspaper offering a reward for their return. The two were running away from the terrible situation in the farmland. Monroe also sold a number of his slaves when he sold part of the plantation in 1828.
George Monroe, Jr. is one of the descendants of the enslaved people at the Highland Plantation. He shares his last name with the former president as do many other slaves who kept the name after emancipation.
“I used to always say, ‘You know what Dad, that’s pretty cool, that’s our last name,’” said Monroe, Jr, who also noted that part of history was usually kept under wraps.
Now, 225 years later, Monroe, Jr. is working with the plantation’s Executive Director Sara Bon-Harper to link up with at least a dozen descendants in the immediate area and across Virginia.
“The theme of having one’s eyes opened to reality that one was completely ignorant of, I think, goes through race relations in Virginia. And my response is to be completely open to learning the things that I have not known and Highland is really, really, excited to have these contacts now and having the willing collaboration of the descendant communities is tremendous,” said Bon-Harper to the NPR.
A group of the descendants have now taken a trip to the Highland and have seen some historic items and structures that were inhabited or seen by the ancestors, including a 300 year old oak tree.
Part of the changes in this outlook of the plantation is the restructuring of language for example instead of saying Monroe built the house, they ought mention the contribution of the enslaved black people who put the building up.
It also involves creating a guide to tell an accurate story of the plantation and its links to slavery to give a fuller picture of the institution and its continuing legacy.