The Naming Project

When we want to learn more about James and Dolley Madison, there are plenty of books we can read. When we want to know more about the enslaved community at Montpelier, it’s more challenging. There’s no single book we can open to find the life stories of the approximately 300 people enslaved here by three generations of the Madison family.

Collecting the Evidence
It takes evidence to write a good biography. Some plantation owners kept ledgers with lists of births and deaths of enslaved people. We don’t know if James Madison kept such detailed ledgers, but if he did, those records have not survived. Without that mass of documentation, how can we hope to tell the individual stories of each of the people enslaved at Montpelier?
We may not have plantation ledgers, but there are thousands of letters, court documents, and miscellaneous records that do survive. And many of them mention enslaved people. For decades, researchers at Montpelier have combed through these documents, taking note whenever the name of an enslaved person turned up. Descendants of enslaved people also reached out to share their oral histories with us. Beginning in 2006, we have entered all available research materials into our Montpelier Research Database. We created name records for everyone mentioned in the documents – including the enslaved – so that we could track each person who appeared in the documentary record, what they were doing, and when. These bits of information were like individual beads waiting to be strung together.
Sharing the Stories
In the summer of 2020 – in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd – people asked museums and historic sites what they could do to be more relevant. One Twitter user challenged Montpelier, “In your hope for the future, what are the tangible steps you are taking to preserve and share the history of Black folks? Particularly the histories of folks who were enslaved at Montpelier? How are you centering their stories in your preservation, scholarship, materials, etc.?”
We realized that while we had collected a wealth of information about Montpelier’s enslaved community, much of it was in the form of unpublished research notes. How could we share all those stories with the public, especially at that point in the pandemic when far fewer people were coming to Montpelier to hear the stories in person?
Montpelier archaeologist Dr. Terry Brock proposed a social media strategy entitled “The Whole Truth,” and invited feedback from the Montpelier Descendants Committee through their Educational Subcommittee chair, anthropology professor Dr. Iris Ford. One component of the strategy (the one which ultimately gained the most traction) was to create a page on Montpelier’s Digital Doorway website where we could “say the names, and tell the stories, of the hundreds of African Americans, enslaved and free, who lived, worked, raised families, and built communities at Montpelier.” This was the genesis of the Naming Project
Choosing “The Naming Project” as the title was intentional. Even the simple act of stating the name of each individual enslaved person was important in centering their voices at Montpelier, whether or not there would be enough research material to fully flesh out each person’s story.
Montpelier’s Senior Research Historian Hilarie Hicks began to string together the bits of information already collected in our database. The names of some people – like Polly or York – appear on a tax list or a shoe distribution list and nowhere else. This meant that their biographies would be fairly short. Other people’s biographies can be longer if we have more information about them –  if they appear frequently in Madison’s letters as Aleck did, if they lived past the Civil War to be recorded in the federal census as Solomon Taliaferro did, or if their descendants have shared family stories with us as Benjamin McDaniel’s family did.
Going Forward
The Naming Project is designed to be an ongoing initiative. We will continue to write biographies and link them both to the main Naming Project page and to existing biographies, so that readers can delve into the intertwined stories of enslaved people connected by ties of family and kinship. We will also update the biographies when we have new research findings to share. (Catherine Taylor’s biography, for example, was revised after we discovered Susannah Stewart’s will and realized that Catherine was a member of the Stewart family.) We hope that readers will find inspiration in the Naming Project for further research, historical analysis, classroom projects, or their own journeys through family history.
The Naming Project is based on one essential idea: each member of the enslaved community had a name that must be spoken and a life that must be honored. Explore the Naming Project on Montpelier’s Digital Doorway – and look for #MontpelierNamingProject on our social media – so that the stories of the enslaved community at Montpelier may endure in living memory.