By Brett Zongker , AP
WASHINGTON–Homes of slaves who served President James Madison at his Montpelier estate in Virginia will be rebuilt for the first time over the next five years, along with other refurbishments to the home of one of America’s Founding Fathers, thanks to a US$10 million gift announced Saturday.
David Rubenstein, a leading Washington philanthropist and history buff, pledged the US$3.5 million needed to rebuild the slave quarters next to the mansion in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another US$6.5 million will be devoted to refurnishing parts of the home where Madison drafted ideas that would become the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
After widow Dolley Madison sold the estate in 1844, many family belongings were dispersed or sold, leaving some rooms mostly empty of period furnishings after the estate opened to visitors in 1987. Now, curators hope to recover or borrow artifacts from the fourth president’s family life to bring the estate back to life, said Montpelier Foundation President and CEO Kat Imhoff.
Rubenstein told The Associated Press he wanted to help make the estate more authentic. Montpelier could draw more visitors to learn about history, he said, if the house is fully restored and its slave quarters built out. It currently draws about 125,000 visitors a year. Last year, Rubenstein gave funds to recreate slave quarters on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation.
��It’s this dichotomy. You have people who were extraordinarily intelligent, well-informed, educated; they created this incredible country �X Jefferson, Washington, Madison �X yet they lived with this system of slavery. Jefferson, Washington and Madison all abhorred slavery, but they didn’t do, they couldn’t do much about it,�� he said. ��We shouldn’t deify our Founding Fathers without recognizing that they did participate in a system that had its terrible flaws.��
The donation marks a trifecta of gifts totaling US$30 million to projects at Virginia’s oldest presidential sites. Last year Rubenstein gave US$10 million gifts to both Jefferson’s Monticello estate and George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.
Recreating Montpelier’s South Yard, where domestic slaves lived, as well as the basement areas of the mansion where they worked, will help tell a fuller version of history, Imhoff said.
The slave quarters at Montpelier were cleared away 165 years ago and planted over with grass, but the site has not been disturbed since.