Monroe plantation in the United States, the heavy legacy of the descendants of slaves

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A statue of President James Monroe at Highland, his former plantation in Virginia.Credit

Miranda Barnes for M Le magazine du Monde


Posted today at 1:14 p.m.

All their lives, the Monroes have known. Vaguely. Without really saying it. But, from generation to generation, they knew. These families of black Americans, settled near Charlottesville (Virginia), suspected that their surname was not unrelated to that of one of the most illustrious Americans in history: James, fifth president of the United States , father of the doctrine of the same name, landowner and, therefore, in this Virginia of the early nineteenth century, slavery.

Historically, George Monroe, 67, his son with the same first name, 46, their cousin Ada, 80, and some of their relatives clearly imagined that the Highland estate, name of the former president's plantation, was part of their family history, as well as that of Thomas Jefferson's fellow traveler.

A past that does not pass

We are far here from the cotton fields of the south of the country, the wet banks of the Mississippi irrigating immense properties which have entered the collective imagination as symbols of slavery. The green pastures, the farms bordered by immaculate white barriers rather evoke Normandy or Auvergne. It prevents : the history of the United States is there. This corner of Virginia is a concentrate of American tensions, a land bruised by the battles of the American Civil War (1861-1865). A few kilometers from Highland, Charlottesville became, in August 2017, the epicenter of white supremacism and its bad winds. After a rally by the far right, nostalgic for the southern states, a counter-protester was killed there in a ram car attack.

"All my life, I could not pronounce the word plantation. It stirred up too many terrible things. Why would we want to visit a place where our ancestors were tortured? »George Monroe father

Faced with this passing past, no Monroe, until recently, had wanted to cross the few kilometers of bucolic country roads leading to the former president's property, surrounded by well-kept fields. George Monroe father would have walked the magnificent avenue of ash trees leading to the imposing statue of the great man, near the white wooden house, open to the public from the years 1930 and transformed into a museum for over forty years. What's the point ? He would inevitably have come across the slave district, a series of clean and renovated little houses, romantically revisited testimonies of an otherwise more cruel reality. "All my life, I could not pronounce the word plantation", explains this retired civil servant, met on the spot with members of his family and the museum's curator, Sara Bon-Harper. “For us, it stirred up too many terrible things. Why would we want to visit a place where our ancestors were tortured? ", questioned the swaying Virginian. Concerned with precision, he chooses his words calmly, but his tone, calm, hardly conceals a background of anger.


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