How Michelle Taylor Went to College to Study Anthropology and Found her Slave Ancestors Nearby

Michelle Taylor, a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, stands in front of the restored cabin of freed slave George Gilmore in August of 2012. Gilmore is a distant ancestor of the anthropology student, who participated in an excavation on the property. (Courtesy of Michelle Taylor)
Michelle Taylor, a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, stands in front of the restored cabin of freed slave George Gilmore in August of 2012. Gilmore is a distant ancestor of the anthropology student, who participated in an excavation on the property. (Courtesy of Michelle Taylor)

Michelle Taylor has had a peculiar fascination with dead people for most of her life. As a young girl, she wanted to be a mortician, a pronouncement that sometimes earned her gawks and stares. Later, she took classes in mortuary science. 

The obsession ultimately turned from the recently dead to the long-dead and a fixation with her own family’s geneaology. She began tracing her family’s roots from Detroit, where she grew up, back to Henderson, Ky., where her slave ancestors worked on a plantation and where her great-grandmother was born.

But the anthropology student’s move to Virginia Commonwealth University — and a keen eye for genealogical research — put her closer to her own roots than she could have imagined. Taylor found herself inside the home of a distant slave ancestor, George Gilmore, a man who had been enslaved by James Madison at Montpelier, about 30 miles northwest of her school.

Taylor’s link to Gilmore, who was freed during the Civil War, injected new energy and meaning into her work unearthing her family’s own past. It also reaffirmed her aspirations to make anthropology and archaeology her life’s work.

“I knew after that, archaeology and anthropology was what I needed to do,” said Taylor, a 24-year-old recent graduate of VCU. “I’m telling the story for so many others now.”

At the Montpelier Foundation, which manages the Madison home and surrounding property, leaders want to make the legacy of the region’s African-Americans — from those who were enslaved by Madison, to those who lived under the oppression of Jim Crow laws — prominent. Gilmore’s restored cabin is an important centerpiece to this initiative, but work also is underway to reconstruct slave quarters.

The effort is not just to show Madison’s apparent hypocrisy in fervently arguing for the nation’s freedom while also owning slaves. It’s also an attempt to show the complexity of the lives of African-Americans, demonstrating their skills as artisans and the discreet economy they operated.

“They had their own independent economy and in many ways this is what allowed them to survive after slavery,” said Matthew Reeves, Montpelier’s director of archaeology.

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Source: The Washington Post | Moriah Balingit

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