MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to hear now about what one historic institution is doing to acknowledge its past. Just outside Charlottesville, Va., America's fifth president, James Monroe, owned a plantation called Highland. For the first time in its 225-year history, the site has begun talking with descendants of the African-Americans that he enslaved. Jordy Yager has this story.
JORDY YAGER, BYLINE: The cemetery where George Monroe, Jr.'s grandparents are buried is hidden away and hard to find.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: That grave over there is under the...
GEORGE MONROE, JR: That's the Monroe grave, right?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah. You want to see?
YAGER: He has his kids with them at the cemetery, which is a few miles from where James Monroe once enslaved at least 49 men, women and children. After emancipation, many kept the Monroe name, bought land and built Monroetown. Over the generations, many Monroes moved on. But they come back to visit.
MONROE: The road that we took to come down here is a road that my father used to bring us when we'd come down here. And I'd always say, you know what, dad? That's pretty cool. That's our last name. I'm, like, 5, 6 years old.
YAGER: His dad would nod.
MONROE: And then it wasn't until I got, like, to maybe 16 or 17, and I started asking questions. I said, are we linked? And they were, like, well, yeah. But then they wouldn't say anything else about it, right?
YAGER: Highland is now run as a historic site near Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. It hosts weddings, concerts and draws thousands of tourists each year. But until recently, the enslaved weren't much talked about. And that's a problem, says executive director Sara Bon-Harper. So, over the last year, she's forged relationships with more than a dozen descendants. She wants them to tell the story of Highland.
SARA BON-HARPER: Thinking about how things are going to shift or change or evolve is a great question because I have no idea (laughter). And that's OK.
YAGER: One afternoon, the group of descendants toured the property with a guide, walking past a 300-year-old oak tree.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Your ancestors definitely saw this tree (laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Whistling).
YAGER: Some changes will be major. Bon-Harper wants tourists to learn about slavery everywhere they go - discuss Monroe, discuss the enslaved. This bridges the past with the present, opening the door for talks about Jim Crow laws, racism and white supremacist violence. Changes are also in the details, in the language.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When I started, people said this was Monroe's study.
YAGER: On their tour, the group of descendants goes inside the big house.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: But, in terms of, like, the progression of the house, when Monroe built it in 1818...
YAGER: When Monroe built it - actually, Waltine Eubanks says, it was her enslaved ancestors, like carpenters Peter and George, who built the houses.
WALTINE EUBANKS: When visitors come, they won't think that James Monroe did all of this by himself.
YAGER: Highland's not alone in realizing they've only told half the story. Earlier this year, at James Madison's former plantation Montpelier, Bon-Harper and George Monroe, Jr. joined site directors, archaeologists, historians and descendants to create a guide to tell more accurate and complete narratives. That's important for George's cousin Waltine, who says the painful history of slavery and its continuing legacies are like a boil on the skin.
EUBANKS: What we are doing here now - we have opened the boil related to the slaves and now descendants here on this plantation that is also relevant to all plantations. And we are willing to do the work - the dirty, nasty, stinky, pussy work - to get our situation healed.
YAGER: George agrees. American history is messy and filled with hard truths, he says, so lay it all out and talk about it
MONROE: And then let's move on from there. You know, and you have a personal choice to make, you have a commitment to make that point. Once you know the full story, now what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it?
YAGER: What people do with it, he says, isn't up to him. But what is is making sure the truth is finally told.
For NPR News, I'm Jordy Yager in Charlottesville, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.