Sara in Colonial Virginia

A first-year student majoring in English and public relations, Sara is a Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program. During spring 2014, she is enrolled in the Honors history class “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” The class traveled to Virginia during spring break, with visits to Alexandria, Colonial Williamsburg, Washington, Charlottesville and the plantations of George Washington (Mount Vernon), Thomas Jefferson (Monticello), and James Madison (Montpelier).

Many of the photos on this blog were taken by Lucy, a first-year Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in biology.

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From Madison’s home to DC

This day would be our final full day together. The morning was both exciting and bittersweet. The Hampton Inn provided a lovely continental breakfast. One by one, we arrived with our suitcases to grab a quick bite to eat before heading to Montpelier and James Madison’s home.

Madison’s plantation was by far the prettiest of the presidential properties, although Monticello may have given it a run for its money if the flowers and vineyard had been in bloom. Montpelier was situated amidst clear, rolling hills, and the property was tastefully contained by forest green wooden fences. I could almost see the flowers and tobacco plants in my mind’s eye as I soaked in the view of the land, and the mental image took my breath away. Of course, that image was ruined by an imaginary crack of a whip, coming down upon some unfortunate man’s back. I turned away from the fields to listen as Ellen, our guide for the day, introduced herself.

On the porch at Montpelier

On the porch at Montpelier

I was highly impressed by this tour. Just as Madison himself focused on the smaller aspects of everything, Ellen focused our tour on the small details that related to our class. She had obviously been informed that we were studying slavery because she came prepared with anecdotes and various accounts of Madison’s slaves.

The first thing she mentioned, however, was a warning: Montpelier came into historians’ hands only as recently as 2000. Before then, as many as six families had owned it after the Madisons, with each family making drastic changes. The biggest change was by the DuPont family, who decided that painting the house pink would be a bright idea (no pun intended)! I was horrified — but then again, people of their time didn’t have as big of an appreciation for presidential homes as we do now. When historians bought the property, they restored it to its original red brick state, thankfully still buried underneath the pink plaster, and have been working to re-create life as the Madisons knew it. Even as we watched, workers were constructing slave dwellings and various “dependencies,” as Madison called them, according to archeological evidence.

Inside the house, we saw as much as the Foundation had to offer, which definitely wasn’t as much as the others. The dining room and study were set up quite nicely, as were a few bedrooms. One of the bedrooms connected directly to the dining area so that Madison, who couldn’t walk in his later years, could still interact with his visitors. He later died in this room. Ellen told us a story about Madison’s death — recorded by a slave, not his wife or family, like other former presidents. The story goes that Paul Jennings saw that Madison couldn’t swallow his breakfast one morning. In Jennings account, he said that Madison’s niece asked Madison what was wrong, to which Madison replied, “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear,” before his head dropped. How quiet — a simple death. How very Madison.

Here we visited the slave burial grounds and the Madison family cemetery. Just as at Washington’s, we would be seeing the two back-to-back, and I knew the differences would be glaring. The slave burial area was much like the one at Monticello — basically a clearing in the forest. The DuPonts had apparently used the space as a horse path and a trash dump, but we could still see the depressions that marked the graves. Some white stones in the area may have served as markers in the slaves’ time, but they were no longer in their original locations. It was simple, quiet and humble — nothing that the slaves deserved at all!

The Madison cemetery was simple as well, but only in comparison to Jefferson’s or Washington’s. A fence was added after his death, but even during his lifetime the graves were marked with beautiful headstones. Madison’s own grave included a large obelisk, and Dolley’s had a slightly smaller one. Not nearly as impressive as Washington’s tomb, for sure, but certainly better than what the slaves had received.

Charlottesville Montpelier Yard

At Montpelier

After lunch we traveled to our final destination — the Grand Finale of our tour in Washington, D.C. Two and a half hours after leaving Montpelier, we looked out the windshield of the van to see the Capitol looming over us. The most prominent part of the city for me, though, wasn’t the buildings. It was the roads! They were so curvy and twisted, full of roundabouts and diagonal streets that crisscrossed the straight roads. I also noticed the names of the streets — all of states or letters of the alphabet.

Dr. Doyle finally pulled up to a gray, almost Roman-esque building. I tumbled out of the van onto the sidewalk, barely finding the time to make out the words Tabard Inn before I heard Ms. Spaniolo say, “Would someone volunteer to help Dr. Doyle navigate to Enterprise to turn in the van, so I can check everyone else in?” I couldn’t pass up that opportunity, could I? I left my suitcase with my classmates and clambered into the front seat of the van. As Dr. Doyle restarted the engine, I glanced at the map Ms. Spaniolo had given me, and it was all I could do not to groan out loud. Truth be told, I’m not exactly proficient when it comes to reading blurry, broadly detailed maps — and this one fit those qualifications perfectly.

Regardless, I did my best. On our drive, poor Dr. Doyle had to go in approximately four circles, turn around roughly three times, and take one alternate route. The last one happened when I realized (rather belatedly) that we would both be better off if I used the GPS on my phone. Thank goodness I did! We were at Enterprise merely 10 minutes after I pulled out my phone.

The drive itself was quite pleasant, aside from getting lost. We passed several statues and monuments, which I enjoyed seeing. Dr. Doyle pointed out different touristy places to visit, and told me about a few of the bookstores he’d visited while here for conferences. I was particularly intrigued by the bookstores, so I asked for directions so that I could drag some of my classmates to one when we returned to the hotel. We turned in the van without a problem and took a short walk to hail a cab for the ride back. I won’t lie — I was more amused than I should have been when the building’s bellhop used a little gold whistle to catch the cabbie’s attention!

Riding back to the Tabard Inn, Dr. Doyle pointed out a few more monuments for me, and told me about the hotel he had chosen for us: “It’s made from three townhouses from the 1800s. The owners connected the townhouses to make a hotel in the 1920s, and the rooms are decorated with a very unique style. I think you will all enjoy it.”

He was right! Back at the hotel, I was met with a maze of corridors, dead ends, and narrow staircases. Finally, I turned a corner to see a naked girl sitting in a bathtub at the foot of some stairs. Don’t be alarmed — she was a plastic mannequin who had no dignity left to lose at that point. Her hand was pointing towards the stairs, so I followed its path up one flight, where I found a sliding door labeled with a simple golden “4.”

I couldn’t help but gush over the room. It was so eclectic! Iron-wrought headboards framed two beds on one half of the room, and a couch and two armchairs surrounded a fireplace on the other. There was even a bookcase against one of the walls, filled to the brim with books for guests to read! The ceiling was just as interesting, painted to look like the underside of a fishbowl. The bathroom was a bit more modern in style, with sandy tiles and an elegant mirror. Needless to say, I took a few minutes to snag some pictures of the room.

With just a few hours before our Last Supper, a group of us decided to wander the city streets. Kelly, Adam, Hope, Andrew, A.J., and I decided to stick together and found a statue down the street from our hotel. He looked important, and we were curious. Turns out, it was Daniel Webster, a man we had just heard about that morning at Montpelier. Apparently, Webster helped free Madison’s slave, Paul Jennings! How funny that his would be the statue we found near our hotel.

The next hour or so passed quickly while we wandered around, counting different embassies and pointing out various stores (Kelly found a Mad Hatter’s Grille, and we decided it would be the headquarters for the group of the same name from SMU!). At last, the street we were following came to a dead end…at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A tall, black fence bordered a perfectly manicured yard, and further back sat (yes, you guessed it) the White House! Naturally, we spent several minutes taking pictures before dodging through a crowd of protestors to find our way back to the hotel.

We decided to take an alternate route, so that we could see different embassies and possibly find the bookstore Dr. Doyle had mentioned. Finding the hotel was more difficult than we originally believed … but we did manage a few more stops on our adventure back. Kelly got to stand by the Embassy of Argentina, her study-abroad home from last semester, and A.J. found Swaziland’s embassy. I, on the other hand, found a building that was more important to me than I thought it would be.

When I first saw the golden cross atop an aging brown building, I believed we had found a pretty church in which we could kill some time taking pictures. I was delighted when the sign outside read St. Matthew’s Cathedral — it was a Catholic church! Several people were walking out; apparently, mass had just ended. Our group mounted the steps and snaked through the crowds to the door. The inside of the church took my breath away. The ceilings soared high above us, and the elegant murals made them look as if they opened straight to the heavens.

Out of lifelong habit, I crossed myself with the water at the entrance and made my way through the chestnut pews, utterly entranced. I even forgot about the rest of the group! I do remember experiencing mixed feelings of envy and relief that I couldn’t attend the church regularly. On one hand, I loved how it felt and looked so sacred. But on the other, I knew that if I was there all the time, it would lose its magic. For that, I am grateful that the cathedral isn’t close to me!

After a few minutes, I shook myself out of my reverie and stood up to leave. As I turned, I noticed that A.J. had wandered up to the front, and he had his phone out. The phone camera clicked, echoing in the quiet chamber and causing him to cringe slightly. He glanced around sheepishly and caught my eye. “Did you see this?” he asked quietly.
Wordlessly, I slid along the pew to the main aisle to see what he was talking about. He pointed to something at the floor, and as I glanced at it, my jaw dropped. There, in the middle of the elegant flooring, lay a simple yet elegant design: a white circle, bordered in green and gold. Inside, carefully painted letters read: Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the requiem mass, November 25, 1964, before their removal to Arlington where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection. Of all the places for us to end up, we chose the church that had incredible historic meaning!

We all reunited in front of the church and moved in the direction of the hotel. It took much longer to find the Tabard Inn than we initially thought — although that might have been because we walked past the street we needed, and it took us several more blocks to realize our mistake.

Back at the hotel, we had 30 minutes to prepare for our final meal. We had been told that it would be held at the hotel in a fancy setting. The automatic chaos that ensued in the girls’ rooms was incredible! Makeup, hair straighteners, and high heels were everywhere— and from what I hear, the guys experienced the male equivalent upstairs. It took every second in those thirty minutes for everyone to pick just the right outfit and make our way to the lobby. When we had all gathered, Dr. Doyle and Ms. Spaniolo led us to the restaurant host, who took our group upstairs to a private dining room. There were exactly 13 seats around the elegantly set square table. When the doors were closed, the room became a quiet, intimate setting — perfect for our final evening together.

In the time it took for our food to come, we were able to go around the table to describe our favorite part of the trip. I knew I had absolutely adored Alexandria, but I was surprised when a majority of my classmates echoed my sentiments. Of course, we all had our own reasoning, but it seemed as though Alexandria had been a perfect first location. Other hot-spots were each of the Presidents’ homes and any restaurant (definitely a unanimous opinion — the food was awesome!).

At the end of our “show-and-tell” session, Hope spoke up. “We wanted to say thank you for taking us on this trip, organizing everything, and helping us learn more about the material from the class!” She pulled out two cards that our class had signed earlier that evening. We passed them along the table to Dr. Doyle and Ms. Spaniolo, who smiled and took them. As they read, our food arrived, and the conversation turned to the delicious plates that we had all ordered. Then came the best part — dessert!

Everyone finished their meals around 10, and we were free for the rest of the night. Emily and Morgan decided to go on a midnight monument tour. Morgan had done it with her father before, and it sounded like a fun idea! They would return around midnight, and I thought their pictures looked great! I had fun going through and comparing the nighttime pictures to those from the daytime. The rest of us hung around the hotel to play card games and enjoy the evening of relaxation. By 1 a.m. we decided that it was time for us to make our way downstairs to sleep.

Although I wasn’t aware of it, this point in the trip would show me the value of decision making — I had decided to shower that evening. The shower handles themselves were extremely confusing, but I finally managed to figure out how to get to the warm water. I didn’t think much of it; I just wanted to sleep! I gathered my blanket and pillow, opting to curl up on the couch instead of sharing a bed to sleep (which was quite comfortable!).

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