Slavery at James Monroe's Highland

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Highland Service Yard
Interior of Reconstructed Slave Dwelling at Highland
1908 photo of original slave dwelling structure
Sara Bon-Harper, Executive Director at James Monroe's Highland
Sara Bon-Harper, Executive Director at James Monroe's Highland

Audio Transcript

I am Sara Bon-Harper, executive director at James Monroe Highland in Albemarle County. When slavery was first interpreted at Highland it was in the 1980s. There was a big and rather bold initiative to recreate a quarter that had been on the property. It was a controversial move that received some public criticism about why would you memorialize this particular aspect of the founders existence. In looking at it some thirty years later we see that it’s an important thing to remember and not forget. The building that we have reconstructed at Highland is a replica of a building that we see in photographs from the early 1900s. It clearly has three doors and three separate rooms. Many individuals lived in each of these spaces, so it was cramped. It was difficult conditions, however I would say that the actual violence in slavery in the upper south during Monroe’s time was not so much the physical conditions that people lived in daily. What has been so damaging has been the way that people were not free to make their own choices about their lives. Families could not choose to stay together. A parent had no legal ability to stay with a child if a master chose otherwise. And so it’s these pieces that are socially and psychologically damaging that were the hardest part of slavery. So, we can look at these buildings and think, you know, they don’t look that different from what poor white people were living in but the difference is freedom. It’s legal freedom. Slavery was a central part to the founding of this country. So, understanding slavery and in fact, race relations from the past is critical to understanding where we are today and the things that we have and more importantly, have not managed to overcome in our own society now.