The push for the telling of the real American story continues.
I was heartened when I read this news in The Washington Post about a major foundation’s support for a truthful version of American history:
The Mellon Foundation has awarded nearly $5.8 million to James Madison’s Montpelier estate for a memorial to the “Invisible Founders” — the enslaved men, women, and children who helped build the nation but whose identities have largely been lost to history.
About 300 enslaved people are buried at the 2,650-acre site. Historians will gather as much information as possible about those individuals, French said, and archaeologists will begin surveying the boundaries of the burial site in April. Planning for the memorial itself will probably begin toward the end of the year, he said.
The grant is part of the Mellon Foundation’s “Monuments Project,” a $250 million program to better commemorate the contributions to American history of populations that have often been marginalized or overlooked. Late last year, Mellon awarded $11 million to the city of Richmond to help create a memorial center in the Shockoe Bottom district that before the Civil War housed the nation’s second-busiest slave market.
Recognition of the role that enslaved people played in founding, building, and sustaining this country is growing despite media coverage of demagogues, racists, and those who want to continue the American tradition of erasing, marginalizing, and questioning the contributions of Black Americans. All the polls show support for teaching American history that includes the good the bad and the ugly, all the polls show support for children’s access to “diverse stories.”
Scholars and historians are writing extensively about the institutions of higher education made possible by the enslavement of Black bodies, from Yale to Georgetown University Black bodies turned into dollar bills made “higher education” possible for the educated elite who were then and remain members of our democratic aristocracy.
There is a growing consensus that those nameless skilled brilliant men and women who toiled to benefit and enrich others need to be recovered from invisibility.
They may have been invisible to those who enslaved them, and from traditional history books but they were visible to themselves, their families, and the many Black writers who honored their names and deeds, and sacrifice in books. Writers like Lerone Bennett, George Washington Williams, J.A, Rogers and so many others.
While I applaud the use of the term “Invisible Founders” we need to be clear about just who could not see who and why.
Marita Golden is the author of 19 works of fiction and nonfiction. She is Co-founder and President Emerita of the Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Foundation. As a teacher of writing, she has served as a member of the faculties of the MFA Graduate Creative Writing Programs at George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University and served as a Distinguished Visiting Writer in the MA Creative Writing Program at John Hopkins University, and at the University of the District of Columbia. She has taught writing workshops nationally and internationally to a variety of constituencies and is a writing coach, workshop presenter, and literary consultant.