James Madison’s Montpelier Gets a CRT Renovation

COMMENTARY American History

James Madison’s Montpelier Gets a CRT Renovation

Aug 1, 2022 6 min read
Brenda Hafera

Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Simon Center

Brenda is the Assistant Director and Senior Policy Analyst for the Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
At Montpelier, there are numerous exhibits on slavery, yet none on James Madison’s invaluable contributions to the early republic. VCG Wilson / Corbis / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Unfortunately, Montpelier, the historical home of James Madison, has adopted a CRT narrative.

Montpelier is not the only group promoting such content.

In making slavery the dominant focus, Montpelier is giving children the impression that America was founded on slavery rather than freedom. That is just wrong.

Last summer, Virginia parents mobilized to keep Critical Race Theory (CRT) out of their schools. They fought for the basics—reading, math, science, and history—arguing that CRT has no place in public education. The same is true at America’s historical sites. Our monuments, battlefields, and museums are civic education centers, places where visitors can learn the American story. We expect historically driven and fair accounts.

Unfortunately, Montpelier, the historical home of James Madison, has adopted a CRT narrative. Aided by state and federal funds, they now have programming for children and plan to develop an antiracist curriculum.

CRT aims not simply to discuss race or slavery but contends that America is fundamentally a racist nation and that slavery was the driving force behind our origin story. It is a resentment-motivated approach rather than a balanced one that acknowledges the imperfections in our nation’s origins while highlighting its great history. At Montpelier, there are numerous exhibits on slavery, yet none on James Madison’s invaluable contributions to the early republic.

The Montpelier Foundation runs the home. In cooperation with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the foundation has published what it calls a “rubric” for engaging the descendant community and on how slavery should be taught at historic sites. The rubric states: “For institutions that interpret slavery, it is not enough simply to discuss the humanity and contributions of the enslaved. It is imperative that these institutions also unpack and interrogate white privilege and supremacy and systemic racism.”

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In 2019, the Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded Montpelier a $379,049 federal grant to help fund digitization projects and children’s programming initiatives. This programming, Montpelier notes, aims “to foster conversations about fairness, justice, and race between children and their caregivers.”

The exhibit has now been built in one of the reconstructed cabins in the south yard. In the corner is a reading nook with a selection of children’s books. Signs inform parents that “[b]ooks are great tools for introducing young children to topics like race, identity, and justice” and ask: “Have you talked to your child about skin color?”

Some of these books depict the gruesome details of slavery as well as the fortitude and bravery of those who were enslaved. “Love Twelve Miles Long” is a beautiful rendition of Frederick Douglass’ childhood and the love between a mother and son.

But when portraying the viciousness of slavery, there is a question of age-appropriateness. The question arises not because we dismiss the horrors associated with slavery, but because we acknowledge them. A young child cannot comprehend that level of human evil, whether it pertains to slavery, the Holocaust, or any other horrific historical event, and should not be exposed to it at too young an age. 

One of the books, “From Slave Ship to Freedom Road” by Julius Lester and Rod Brown, includes separate “imagination exercises” for “White People,” “African Americans,” and “Whites and Blacks.” The final one asks children to “Imagine not the victim, but the aggressor. We may think that we would never whip someone until their flesh cried blood.” But “Evil is as mesmerizing as a snake’s eyes. Though difficult, we must imagine our capacity for evil. Unless and until we do, unseen shadows of hung men will blot the walls of our homes.” This text is accompanied by illustrations of an enslaved man hanging from a rope, his back raw and bloodied by lashes from a whip, and a silhouette of a hanged man.

Children’s books available for purchase in the gift shop include “Antiracist Baby” by CRT practitioner Ibram X. Kendi and “Born on the Water”, co-authored by Nikole Hannah-Jones, architect of the “The 1619 Project.” Nestled amongst the expected biographies and histories are books from CRT advocates Ta-Nehisi Coates, quoted in “The Mere Distinction of Colour” exhibit, and Robin DiAngelo.

The Montpelier Foundation has publicly responded to media coverage on their website.

Montpelier is not the only group promoting such content. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Teaching Tolerance—rebranded as Learning for Justice—educational materials are extensive and often sent directly to schools, bypassing parents. The SPLC is widely regarded as an extremist political-interest group and is currently facing a lawsuit for allegedly maligning organizations it disagrees with as “hate groups.”

Meg Kilgannon, the senior fellow for Education Studies at the Family Research Council, writes that the SPLC curriculum addresses, “race, the problem of whiteness, white supremacy, systematic racism, and similar CRT-based concepts” and notes that “The source of those CRT-based materials can often be traced back to the SPLC and groups like it.”

There is a great deal of overlap between the SPLC’s publications and the exhibits at Montpelier, as I outline in a new Heritage Foundation Report on presidential homes.

All eight of the children’s books in Montpelier’s reading nook are recommended by the SPLC; “From Slave Ship to Freedom Road” is for grades 3-5. Two of the authors of the SPLC’s “Framework for Teaching American Slavery” to young children, Dr. Kate Shuster and Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, participated in the summit that produced Montpelier’s rubric. Jeffries wrote the preface for one of the SPLC’s frameworks and helped develop Montpelier’s contemporary video on slavery’s “lasting legacies.” Lines from the video echo lines from the preface which further states, “Some say slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin.”

Dr. Jeffries was recently appointed to the Board at Montpelier. Also nominated was Maureen Costello, former Director of Teaching Tolerance, who was present when Montpelier’s rubric was developed. While she did not ultimately join the Board, she has been invited to serve on an advisory council for Montpelier. 

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In 2020, Montpelier received a $2 million grant from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to support, among other things, “curriculum development for anti-racist curriculum that would be available for use in public schools throughout Virginia.” There is every reason to believe this curriculum will mimic the SPLC’s frameworks by promoting a radical CRT narrative. And with former SPLC Director of Teaching Tolerance Maureen Costello’s involvement, Montpelier would have the connections to distribute this curriculum directly to schools without any parental knowledge or involvement—even though it will have been financed by Virginia parents’ tax dollars.

It can be hard to find exhibits about the accomplishments of James Madison at Montpelier. 

Montpelier on James Madison’s accomplishments, either for children or adults. Is slavery the most important thing for our children to learn about America?

The children’s programming could have been focused on teaching the basics of the Constitution or the importance of the Bill of Rights, choices that would have been appropriate at the home of the Father of the Constitution, the primary author of the Bill of Rights and our nation’s fourth president.

Surely it could have discussed the principles of the founding and the contradiction of slavery. But in making slavery the dominant focus, Montpelier is giving children the impression that America was founded on slavery rather than freedom. That is just wrong.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Wire