On Juneteenth, the descendants of James Madison's slaves return to his home.

James Madison is known as the "father of the Constitution." But while he and the convention delegates built the country on paper, slaves were building it everywhere else.

Today, Madison's historic home Montpelier is open to the public. Visitors can explore the mansion, the Madison family cemetery, acres of picturesque hills, and learn more about Montpelier's enslaved community by touring slaves' quarters.

The mansion at Montpelier. All images via James Madison's Montpelier, used with permission. Photo by Pam Soorenko.


Montpelier is the first presidential home to honor the lives and contributions of slaves with a Juneteenth celebration.

Juneteenth is an annual celebration honoring Major General Gordon Granger and Union soldiers who arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that all slaves were officially free. The news came in 1865, more than two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and months after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Granger delivered the joyous announcement on June 19, 1865 and Juneteenth (June + Nineteenth) began.

The celebration at Montpelier on June 17, 2017, was open to the public and included music performances, special tours, historical reenactments, lectures, kids activities, and more.

Photos by Eduardo Montes-Bradley.

But perhaps the best thing about Montpelier's Juneteenth celebration was its guest list.

Descendants of James Madison's slaves and other black families known to live in the area at the time were all invited.

Leontyne Clay Peck is one of the descendants. She grew up in West Virginia, but after moving to nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, 14 years ago and digging into her genealogy, she discovered her ancestors were from the area.

"I felt very comfortable in Madison County and ... my spirit felt very familiar when I was at Montpelier and this area in general," she says. "I know now that's because of my ancestors."

Leontyne Clay Peck at Montpelier.

Today, Peck is active in the Montpelier descendant community. Three years ago, she even took part in an archaeological search on the property to uncover artifacts near the slave quarters. For Peck, it was a spiritual experience.

"When I was touching the dirt and digging, I felt close to the people who were there. Maybe that could have been my relative or someone else's relative," she says. "I felt very comfortable, like the ancestors were saying, 'Don't forget about us. We were here.'"

Montpelier archaeological dig site. Photo by Pam Soorenko.

This year's Juneteenth marked the first time many of the descendants saw a new exhibit on Montpelier's enslaved community.

"The Mere Distinction of Colour," which opened June 5, is a multimedia installation offering visitors the chance to hear stories of slaves at Montpelier told by their living descendants. It also includes some of the artifacts excavated by volunteers and archaeologists at the site. The exhibition studies slavery and its political and economic impact through the lens of the Constitution, a large part of James Madison's legacy.

Top: The slaves cabins in the South Yard. Bottom Left: A recreated slave cabin. Photo by Pam Soorenko.  Bottom Right: Visitors tour the exhibition.

Celebrating the lives and contributions of enslaved people is what Juneteenth is all about.

Whether you're at a presidential home, a neighborhood block party or somewhere in between, take a moment June 19 to honor their memory. Enslaved people built America and their descendants sustain America. For that, we are forever grateful.

Joy abounds at Juneteenth. Photo by Eduardo Montes-Bradley.

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In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

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Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

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Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

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Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

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