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The First Annual Descendant’s Day at Highland

Guest Post by Jennifer Stacy, Highland Council of Descendant Advisors, and Maria DiBenigno, Highland Postdoctoral Research Fellow

William & Mary’s Highland is a 535-acre historic site located in Charlottesville, Virginia and operated by the university. It is notable as the former plantation of the fifth U.S. President and W&M alumnus, James Monroe, as well as 53 women, men, and children who were enslaved by him. We know the names of some of these individuals; others we still seek to know.

IIC Students, Credit Grace Helmick

Highland conducts ongoing research about its extant buildings and natural resources as well as ongoing community engagement. In 2016, Highland announced its discovery that Monroe’s house has been completely destroyed by fire, and the standing building was a separate Guesthouse built in 1818. This major site re-interpretation allowed us to have conversations about what historic sites get wrong and how we work to tell more truthful stories about the past. This discovery also helped connect Highland’s staff with members of the local descendant community whose ancestors were enslaved at Highland. In 2018, ten of these individuals formed the Highland Council of Descendant Advisors. The Council advises Highland staff on exhibit content, program planning, and community engagement through the concept of shared authority. Members present at regional conferences, including the Lemon Project’s Symposium, work with regional school systems, and interact with W&M students on a variety of topics, including food histories and on-campus concerns.

Ada’s Kitchen on Wheels, Credit Grace Helmick

On Saturday, June 11, the Council hosted their first Descendants Day at Highland. It was an event long in the making. Attendees enjoyed a delicious lunch buffet from Ada’s Kitchen on Wheels, a local food truck owned by Highland descendant, Gloria Saylor, and named for her mother and Council member, Ada Monroe Saylor. The Council welcomed descendant groups and community members from all parts of Virginia, including our W&M partners at the Institute for Integrative Conservation, the Bray School Initiative, the Lemon Project, and Special Collections. Friends from the Historic Brattonsville Descendants Group traveled from their homes in Rock Hill, South Carolina to attend — the Council was so honored by their presence!

Locally, the Council welcomed the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia, the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, the Descendants of the Pen Park plantations, and the B.F. Yancey School Community Center. The event included many regional collaborators, including the White House Historical Association, Virginia Humanities, the Ivy Creek Foundation, plus colleagues from the Louisa County Historical Society and the Fluvanna County Historical Society. Perhaps most importantly, the Council met two previously unknown individuals who descend from Highland’s enslaved families.
An important source of information for Highland’s Florida descendants is Take Them In Families, an ongoing research project centered on the families sold by James Monroe to Florida in 1828.

It was a full afternoon of fellowship, food, conversation, and remembrance that closed with a Calling of Names.

The next Descendants Day is already scheduled for Saturday, June 10, 2023.

To learn more about the Descendant Council’s work as well as Highland’s ongoing reinterpretation, visit https://highland.org/.

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