When I am on a trip, sometimes in contemplating which places to visit with so little time, I must compromise. Virgina is home to some of America’s finest vineyards and as I drove through the Monticello area, I could see the groups of wine tours and the beautiful grapes and plums. The “Sideways” movie in me will have to wait for another trip to Virginia, my car went past the vineyards right to Ash Lawn-Highlands, the home of our 5th president and author of the Monroe Doctrine, James Monroe. By now you may wonder why I am going to see places that seem a bit bucolic and boring. Why not a trip to Cancun or Jamaica? Not for Afrocity. When the time for an excursion arises, I can get pretty nerdy. My trips have always centered around some historic site such as a museum or library. I have seen almost every major library in the world from the Library of Congress to the Book Of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Knowing this it is hard to believe that the homes of our founding fathers never made my must visit list until now.
A glance at the parking lot can tell you a lot about a tourist attraction. Ash Lawn-Highland is not as popular as Monticello and all of the romance controversy that comes with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. At the home of James Monore, a small visitors lot had perhaps 12 cars parked with licesense plates that spanned the country: New Mexico, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, New Jersey, Virginia, New York, Florida, Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland. It was good to see that Americans are doing their vacation traveling in America and stimulating our economy. I was especially pleased to see the number of parents who brought their children. With Barack Obama and his far left ideology in the White House, I felt the need to reconnect with America and the sight of the children reciting he Monroe Doctrine and not the “I love Brack Obama song” was comforting. The adults were another story. I take it that Virginia is now officially a blue state judging from the number of Obama bumper stickers I saw and the number of people who wrongly assume that I voted for him.
“Don’t you just love the Obama’s?” a fellow tourist asked. “I mean what a difference from the slave plantation of yesterday and having our first African American president today.”
I simply nod and smile. What else can I do? You know I really get insulted when people just assume that I voted for Obama because I am African American. There were 2 % of blacks who did not. Also, there is nothing in Obama’s genetic makeup that experienced slavery in the United States. His father was Kenyan and his mother was Caucasian. So yes, people of color have come a long way but there has yet to be a true descendant of American slaves as our president.
As I walked through the Monroe home, I was struck by the modesty of his furnishings. He was not as wealthy as Thomas Jeffereson, that was was evident. His home was not as grand and it was apparent that Colonel Monroe, as he preferred to be addressed, was intensely devoted to his career.
James Monroe held more major offices than any other President. He was a U.S. Senator;Governor of Virginia; Secretary of State and War. Monroe also was a major architect of the Louisiana Purchase, traveling to Paris to negotiate the $15,000,000 deal. Monroe was actually friends with Napoleon , His daughter Eliza Kortright Monroe-Hay was educated in France and played with the children of Napoleon and Josephine. Many of the items in the Monroe home, including a beautiful amethyst necklace were gifts from the Bonapartes.
Elizabeth Monroe loved her desserts and the dining room table was filled with delicacies of the day. One which struck me as odd was the quail eggs filled with custard. They would blow out the insides of the egg and fill them with custards. Of course, the custard would cool and then the shell could be cracked and the custard consumed. The Monroe house was home to slaves as well, nearly 40 which was far less than good friend and neighbor Thomas Jefferson who had nearly 400 slaves at Monticello. The question of slavery weighed heavily upon the conscious of James Monroe. As a state, Virginia had a quarter of a million slaves.
A copy of the “Monroe Doctrine” hung in parlor. The doctrine declared that the Americas should be free from future European colonization and free from European interference in sovereign countries’ affairs. It was the first piece of U.S. foreign policy and was still relevant during the 20th century and beyond. The Monroe Doctrine was used as a basis for policy when President John F. Kennedy dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At the end of the house tour, I was able to walk the house grounds. There I met “Russel” a living history actor. He was portraying a slave and taught me how to quill paper. I was dreadful at it but Russell was a pro and had even created a piece- a beautiful angel for Laura Bush. In turn, Mrs. Bush sent Russel a lovely letter from the White House and her portrait. After Russell attempted to teach me his craft, we sat outside the cabin and discussed African Americans and genealogy. Russell emphasized that most African American history is oral in tradition and we must remember the stories told to us by our elders. Russell has lived in Virginia his entire life and is the descendant of slaves. His great grandmother was a “mulatto” , beyond that Russell says that he forgot most of the stories he was told.
What surprised me was that Russell said some visitors will ask him if he feels that his job is demeaning to African Americans because he is portraying a slave. I found this appalling. Russell feels that his work is very important and creates a dialogue for understanding the past- even the parts we are uncomfortable with. I would agree. All in all, I had a lovely time at Ash Lawn-Highland and highly recommend it for anyone.
Autographed Letter Signed,