Monticello is honored to announce the following speakers for “Ascendant: The Power of Descendant Communities to Shape Our Stories, Places, and Future” on Saturday, June 18. Explore their biographies below.

Collage of event speakers

Melody Barnes is the executive director of the UVA Karsh Institute of Democracy and W.L. Lyons Brown Family Director for Policy and Public Engagement at the Democracy Initiative, an interdisciplinary teaching, research, and engagement effort led by the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia. She is the J. Wilson Newman Professor of Governance at the Miller Center and is also a distinguished fellow at the UVA School of Law. A co-founder of the domestic strategy firm MB2 Solutions LLC, Barnes has spent more than 25 years crafting public policy on a wide range of domestic issues. 

During the administration of President Barack Obama, Barnes was assistant to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She was also executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress and chief counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her experience includes an appointment as director of legislative affairs for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and assistant counsel to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. Barnes began her career as an attorney with Shearman & Sterling in New York City. 

Barnes is also the host and narrator of the National Endowment for the Humanities-supported podcast, LBJ and the Great Society, selected as one of the best podcasts of 2020 by The New Yorker, and co-editor of Community Wealth Building & The Reconstruction of American Democracy:  Can We Make American Democracy Work? (Elgar, 2020).  She is a commentator on U.S. domestic public policy, and her media appearances include This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Morning Joe, the NewsHour, Fareed Zakaria GPS and The Daily Show.

Barnes earned her BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she graduated with honors in history, and her JD from the University of Michigan. She serves on the boards of directors of several corporate, non-profit, and philanthropic organizations.


Niya Bates is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department and Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Her research interests include U.S. slavery, Reconstruction, rural Black communities, and Black environmentalism. For the past five years, Bates has worked in public history preserving rural African American community history in Central, VA. In that time, she also served as the director of African American history and the Getting Word African American Oral History Project at Monticello. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, NBC, CBS, Today, PBS News Hour, ESPN The Undefeated, and Black Perspectives. Bates has been a guest on several podcasts and streaming platforms, including Oprah's Book Club, Monty Don's American Gardens, NPR's All Things Considered, Sporkful with Dan Pashman, and Following Harriet. She earned a B.A. in African and African American Studies and an M.A. in Architectural History with a certificate in Historic Preservation from the University of Virginia. Niya was born and raised in Central Virginia and is a descendant of several families who were enslaved in that area.

Michael L. Blakey is National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Anthropology, Africana Studies, and American Studies, and Founding Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at William & Mary. He is currently Co-Chair (with Deborah Thomas, University of Pennsylvania) of the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains, American Anthropological Association (2022-2024) determining professional policies on how all human remains are treated at museums and archaeological sites.  He serves as advisor to multiple descendant communities defending the dignity of their cemeteries and remains in the eastern half of the United States.
Blakey was a Key Advisor of the award-winning “Race: Are We So Different” exhibition of the American Anthropological Association, where he held several offices including president of the Association of Black Anthropologists (1987-1989) and member of the editorial board of American Anthropologist (2012-2016). Blakey represented the United States on the Council of the 4th World Archaeological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa (1999).  He is a member of the Scholarly Advisory Committee of the National Museum of African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution, where he previously held the position of Research Associate in Physical Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History (1985-1994). He was Scientific Director of the New York African Burial Ground Project (1992-2009), the most sophisticated bioarchaeological project in the United States.  The Manhattan site became a U.S. National Monument in 2007.  It remains the model for ethical research that engages ‘descendant communities’ for informed consent and input on the direction of research.
Blakey held professorships at Spelman College, Columbia, Brown, La Sapienza, and Howard University, where he founded the W. Montague Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory. He began the Remembering Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom Project sponsored by the Virginia General Assembly, 2010-2015.  His most recent book (2009) is The Skeletal Biology of the New York African Burial Ground (with Lesley Rankin-Hill). His 90 articles and reports, in English, Italian and French, cover bioarchaeology, publicly engaged archaeology, and scientific racism. He is currently completing a 1,500 page monograph on race and racism in science and society, from Aristotle to Trump. Blakey has served on the Editorial Boards of American Anthropologist (2012-2016) and American Antiquity (2021-). His numerous awards include the honorary Doctor of Science, York College, CUNY (1995), the President’s Award of the American Anthropological Association, Lifetime Achievement Award of the Association of Black Anthropologists (2021), and the Plumari Award for Faculty Excellence at William & Mary (2022).  He earned the B.A., Howard University, M.A. and PhD in anthropology, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and completed courses at Oxford and London Universities.

Peter D. Cook is Design Principal at HGA Architects & Engineers. He has an outstanding portfolio of design leadership and award-winning projects throughout the United States—particularly in the D.C. area—encompassing museums, memorials, embassies, libraries, cultural and learning centers, and mixed-used corporate and neighborhood master planning.

Among Cook’s high-profile projects are the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Watha T. Daniel / Shaw Neighborhood Library, Embassy of South Africa, and Saint Elizabeths East Gateway Pavilion.

In addition to working with HGA’s clients in the Washington, D.C. area, Cook serves as a national design leader with emphasis on cultural, civic, and federal projects across the country.

Cook is a member of the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C. Chapter and the National Organization of Minority Architects. He holds a Master of Architecture from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, and a Bachelor of Arts in Visual & Environmental Studies from Harvard University. In 2021 he was named by President Biden as a Commissioner on the Commission of Fine Arts.

Andrew M. Davenport is the Public Historian at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Director of the Getting Word African American Oral History Project. He is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University where he served as a research assistant with the Georgetown Slavery Archive. Davenport has published in Lapham’s Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Smithsonian Magazine. His first academic article, “Ralph Ellison and New York City, 1946-1994,” appeared in Ralph Ellison in Context (ed. Paul Devlin, Cambridge University Press, 2021), and his second article, “Mourning at Monticello,” will appear in Mourning the Presidents (eds. Lindsay Chervinsky and Matthew Costello, University of Virginia Press, 2023).

Davenport serves on the Board of Directors of the American Agora Foundation (Lapham’s Quarterly) and is a member of the inaugural cohort of the White House Historical Association Next-Gen Leadership Ambassadors. Davenport has taught middle school history at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep, high school histovry at Fairfield College Preparatory School, African American Art History at Fairfield University, and a Georgetown University course on the history of the Georgetown neighborhood. He earned a B.A. in English from Kenyon College, an M.A. in American Studies from Fairfield University, and an M.A. in U.S. History from Georgetown University.

DuVernay is an Academy Award nominee and winner of the Emmy, BAFTA and Peabody Awards, whose film directorial work includes the historical drama Selma, the criminal justice documentary 13th and Disney's A Wrinkle in Time, which made her the highest grossing Black woman director in American box office history.

DuVernay is currently writing, directing and producing the narrative film adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling nonfiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent for Netflix. Through her ARRAY Filmworks production company, DuVernay is overseeing production on the final season of her critically-acclaimed TV series Queen Sugar (OWN), as well as recent and upcoming television productions including an untitled romantic drama for Starz, Colin in Black and White (Netflix), DMZ (HBO Max), Cherish the Day (OWN), Naomi (The CW), Home Sweet Home (HBO Max) and One Perfect Shot (HBO Max).

Winner of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival's Best Director Prize for her micro-budget film Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay amplifies the independent work of people of color and women of all kinds through her non-profit narrative change collective ARRAY. ARRAY is the 2021 winner of the Peabody Institutional Award. DuVernay sits on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, representing the directors branch. She is also a Vice-President of the Directors Guild of America and an advisory board member of the American Film Institute.

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard. Gordon-Reed won sixteen book prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2009 and the National Book Award in 2008, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton, 2008). In addition to articles and reviews, her other works include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (UVA Press, 1997), Vernon Can Read! A Memoir, a collaboration with Vernon Jordan (PublicAffairs 2001), Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History (Oxford University Press, 2002), a volume of essays that she edited, Andrew Johnson (Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010),  “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination with Peter S. Onuf (Liveright Publishing, 2016), and, most recently, On Juneteenth (Liveright Publishing, 2021).

Gordon-Reed was the Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at the University of Oxford (Queens College) 2014-2015. Between 2010 and 2015, she was the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She was the 2018-2019 President of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). She is the current President of the Ames Foundation. A selected list of her honors includes a fellowship from the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, a Guggenheim Fellowship in the humanities, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, the National Book Award, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, and the George Washington Book Prize, and the Anisfeld-Wolf Book. Gordon-Reed was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011 and was a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2019, she was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Julius “Calvin” Jefferson, Sr. was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and educated in the District of Colombia Public School System graduating from high school in 1965. He attended District of Columbia Teachers College earning a Bachelor of Science Degree for History/Education and studied Public Administration at American University. Calvin taught United States History at Armstrong Adult Education Center in the District of Columbia Public School System for approximately eighteen months before joining the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration, retiring in 2007.

Calvin’s ancestral research began in 1978 at the National Archives searching Virginia’s Census Records for his great grandparents, Philip Evens and Carry Ann Robinson Hughes. The 1870 census records revealed Phillip’s parents to be Robert and Sydney Evens Hughes and Carry Ann’s parents are Isaac and Lucy Fleming Robinson all residing in Albemarle County, Fredericksville Parish. While researching records in the Albemarle County court house he discovered Robert Hughes performed marriage ceremonies at Union Branch Baptist Church. Upon further research he learned Robert Hughes and the emancipated people of Edge Hill and adjacent plantations founded Union Branch Baptist Church on land donated by Thomas Jefferson Randolph. In 1874 the congregation of Zion Hill Baptist Church select Robert to become their first permanent minister.

In 1999, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Getting Word Project contacted Calvin revealing his maternal linage to three Monticello families (Jupiter Evens, George and Ursula Granger, and Elizabeth Hemings). This information reinforced his roots in Albemarle County date back to the creation of the county and his family’s enslavement by Jefferson/Randolph families on their Shadwell, Monticello, and Edge Hill plantations. Calvin’s genealogy goal is to discover as much information about his family in order to tell their story and the family’s contribution to the history of the United States.

Photo: Mariah Miranda

Brent Leggs is the founding executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund - the largest preservation campaign in U.S. history on behalf of historic African American places - and a Senior Vice President at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Through the Action Fund, he leads a broad community of leaders and activists in honor of the clarion that preserving African American cultural sites is fundamental to understanding the American story.

Mr. Leggs is a Harvard University Loeb Fellow, author of Preserving African American Historic Places, the 2018 recipient of the Robert G. Stanton National Preservation Award, and Adjunct Associate Professor of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Senior Advisor to the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

Photo: S. Rosner

Public intellectual, scholar and associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis' research focuses on the intersection of African American and Black Atlantic visual representation, racial justice, and representational democracy in the United States from the nineteenth century through the present. Her scholarship and research have been profiled by outlets including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and her presentations on race in America are sharp, knowledgeable, and insightful. She was recently named a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

One of the most eloquent speakers on the national conversation on race, Lewis believes the fight to end racial injustice cannot be merely legal or political. It has to involve images and it has to involve culture, because the fight is a struggle for visibility. A popular and in-demand speaker, her talks at the nexus of art, race, and justice leave audiences not only inspired, but rejuvenated and hopeful. A frequent speaker at universities and conferences, her mainstage TED talk, Embrace the Near Win, has received over 2.9 million views.

Her award-winning “Vision & Justice” issue of Aperture magazine received the 2017 Infinity Award for Critical Writing and Research from the International Center of Photography and launched the larger Vision and Justice Project, based on the topic of her core curriculum course at Harvard University, filled with compelling inquiry and a sense of timeliness. Lewis says that the point of her course, Vision & Justice magazines, and the talk is to answer the following questions: How is representational democracy tied up with visual representation? How can our culture shift the narratives we have about who counts and who belongs in society?

Lewis is also the bestselling author of The Rise, a fascinating examination of how our most iconic creative endeavors—from innovation to the arts—are not achievements but conversions, corrections after failed attempts. Translated into seven languages, the book is a successful lesson on creativity, innovation, and discovery.


Photo: Frank Stewart

Wynton Marsalis is a world-renowned trumpeter, bandleader, composer, and a leading advocate of American culture. He presently serves as Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and Director of Jazz Studies at The Juilliard School.  Born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1961, Wynton started playing trumpet at 6 on an instrument gifted to him by New Orleans legend Al Hirt. By 9, he played in the Fairview Baptist Church Marching band, and he began formal studies at age 12; at 15, he played the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic and entered The Juilliard School at 17, soon thereafter joining the legendary Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers.   

In 1981, Wynton assembled his own band and hit the road, performing all over the world. To date, he has performed 4,777 concerts in 849 distinct cities and 64 countries across the globe. Through a diversity of performances and music workshops, Marsalis has rekindled and animated widespread interest in jazz both at home and internationally. The range and quality of the music that his soulful, swinging, and sophisticated bands create have deeply inspired audiences. Today, Marsalis is continuing the renaissance that he first sparked in the early 1980s, attracting new generations of young talent to jazz while also maintaining the mythic meanings in the jazz tradition.   

Marsalis has been called the ‘pied piper’ of jazz and the “Doctor of Swing.” Since his recording debut in 1982, he has released 110 jazz and classical recordings and won many awards—both significant and trivial. He regularly performs in the most prestigious concert halls and loves also to play and jam in the most inconspicuous local clubs. Over the course of his tenured career, he has mentored and taught too many artists to name.   

Marsalis is a prolific and inventive composer, with a body of work that includes 573 songs, 11 ballets, four symphonies, eight suites, two chamber pieces, a string quartet, two masses, and concertos for violin and tuba. He is the first musician to perform and compose across the full jazz spectrum from its New Orleans roots to bebop, to modern jazz.  His knowledge of the interconnected roots of American vernacular music inspires him to experiment in an ever-widening palette of forms and concepts that present some of the most advanced thinking in modern jazz.  

Wynton has received such accolades as The Louis Armstrong Memorial Medal, The French Grand Prix du Disque, and The Frederick Douglass Medallion. He was appointed Messenger of Peace by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2001), awarded The National Medal of Arts (2005), and The National Medal of Humanities (2016). Britain’s Royal Academy of Music has granted Marsalis Honorary Membership; in the fall of 2009, he received France’s highest distinction, the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He has received honorary doctorates from 39 of America’s top academic institutions including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Tulane University in his hometown of New Orleans.   

Wynton is the music’s chief advocate, philosopher and performer who is called upon at ceremonial occasions to place events in their proper historical context. To that end, his is a principal speaker in several vital documentaries on jazz and American culture and has written many relevant essays on jazz-related topics. Between 2011 and 2014, he delivered six groundbreaking and definitive lectures entitled Hidden in Plain View: Meanings in American Music at Harvard University. Marsalis is the author of seven books, including two children’s books.  

Marsalis’ vision and passionate leadership were essential to the effort to construct Jazz at Lincoln Center’s home— Frederick P. Rose Hall—the world’s first education, performance, and broadcast facility devoted to jazz, which opened its doors in October 2004.   

Wynton Marsalis’ core beliefs for living are based on the principles of jazz: individual creativity (improvisation), collective cooperation (swing), gratitude and good manners (sophistication), and stubborn optimism (the blues). Wynton believes that music possesses the power to elevate the quality of human engagement for individuals, social networks and cultural institutions throughout the world.  

Adrian Miller is a food writer, James Beard Award winner, attorney, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado. Adrian is featured in the Netflix hit High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.

Miller’s first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the James Beard Foundation Award for Scholarship and Reference in 2014. His second book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas was published on President’s Day 2017. It was a finalist for a 2018 NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Literary Work – Non-Fiction,” and the 2018 Colorado Book Award for History. Adrian’s third book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, was nominated for a 2022 James Beard Award for Reference, History, and Scholarship and a Colorado Book Award for History.

In 2018, Adrian was awarded the Ruth Fertel “Keeper of the Flame Award” by the Southern Foodways Alliance, in recognition of his work on African American foodways.  In 2019, Adrian received the Judge Henry N. and Helen T. Graven award from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, for being “an outstanding layperson, whose life is nurtured and guided by a strong sense of Christian calling, and who is making a significant contribution to community, church, and our society.” In 2022, Adrian received an Honorary Doctorate from the Denver Institute for Urban Studies and Adult College.

Adrian received an A.B in International Relations from Stanford University in 1991, and a J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1995.  From 1999 to 2001, Adrian served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton with his Initiative for One America – the first free-standing office in the White House to address issues of racial, religious and ethnic reconciliation. Adrian went on to serve as a senior policy analyst for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter Jr. From 2004 to 2010, he served on the board for the Southern Foodways Alliance. In June 2019, Adrian lectured in the Masters of Gastronomy program at the Università di Scienze Gastronomiche (nicknamed the “Slow Food University”) in Pollenzo, Italy. He is currently the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches and, as such, is the first African American, and the first layperson, to hold that position. Adrian is also the co-project director and lead curator for the forthcoming “Proclaiming Colorado’s Black History” exhibit at the Museum of Boulder.

Angela Niles is part of the Getting Word community and descended from the Monticello families of Fossett (Hemings). She wishes to acknowledge her diverse lineage of freedom seekers, artists, intellectuals and civil rights advocates. Raised in Oakland, CA, she is currently on a SE^LFE guided, spiritual sabbatical in the mountains, forests and rivers of western NC. 

Free spirited since birth, Angela continues to expand her identity amidst the confines of conformity. Her persistence in exploring freedom consciousness has guided her to deepen her relationship with innate intelligence *Source* which she considers sacred embodiment. Passionately exploring and educating herself in all aspects of nature encourages Angela to connect with humanity in a radically accepting way. She uses this sacred lens to support others (who are choosing) to recover from the modern day dis-ease(s) of dis-connection and domestication. Her creative approach to living infuses her rhythms and rituals and healing arts practice.

Photo: Erin Hollaway Palmer

For the past eight-plus years that Brian Palmer has lived in Virginia, his focus has been illuminating what his collaborator and wife, Erin Hollaway Palmer, calls “the afterlife of Jim Crow.” We see this legacy of systemic racism (and privilege) in the continued funding of Confederate monuments and sites across the South, even as the Black Lives Matter movement complicates and enriches our collective American narrative; and in the persistent neglect and underfunding of African American sites of memory.

Palmer's work—writing, photography, audio, and video—has appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, Smithsonian magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and on Buzzfeed, PBS, BBC, and Reveal. Before going freelance in 2002, Palmer served in a number of staff positions—Beijing bureau chief for US News & World Report; staff writer at Fortune; and on-air correspondent at CNN. Palmer began his career in the late 1980s as a fact-checker for the Village Voice. 

With colleagues Seth Freed Wessler and Esther Kaplan, Palmer received the Peabody Award, National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award, and Online Journalism Award for “Monumental Lies,” a 2018 Reveal radio story about public funding for Confederate sites. Palmer is a founding member of the Friends of East End Cemetery, a 501(c)(3) devoted to the reclamation of this historic African American burial ground under threat from a number of forces. He is also among the founders of the Descendants Council, relatives of African Americans laid to rest in segregated burial grounds in greater Richmond, VA, and concerned citizens from the broader Black community

I am currently serving as the Joan Konner Visiting Professor of Journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and am a member of the Board of Directors of the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where I earned my MFA in 1990.


Acclaimed activist-artist and speaker, Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely is a former Freedom Rider and working member of the historic Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”) that included among its founding members two civil rights legends—Rep. John Lewis while a student protest leader in Nashville and the late Julian Bond, then a Morehouse College student—both of whom Peggy worked with during that history-changing time, along with other civil rights stalwarts. Due to her grass roots activism for civil and voting rights, Ms. Preacely was jailed in Maryland and Georgia. She also worked in various communities across the Deep South in the ‘50s and ‘60s to facilitate community empowerment and register Black voters in underserved rural communities—many registering for the first time in their lives, let alone the first in their family to do so since the 15th Amendment passed in 1870 (and subsequently the 19th Amendment). 

She was also a SNCC participant at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, which  precipitated the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ms. Preacely is a contributing author of Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of the Women in SNCC (2010, University of Illinois Press) which describes her family history of  activism that has shaped her life since she was a teenager.  

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Harlem—she is one of the first Black students to integrate New York’s prestigious Dalton School. When Ms. Preacely returned to the North in Fall 1962 , she continued her activism by working against de facto segregated schools in Boston and protested The Vietnam War—a cause that Dr. King also took on at a time when it was not popular. 

Beyond her own involvement in history-making events, Ms. Preacely is the descendant of an historic multi- faceted family tree. Among her ancestors are: Sally Heming’s sister, Mary Hemings Bell;  and her great, great grandparents ,famed abolitionists Ellen & William Craft, who escaped slavery by Ellen passing as the white male owner of her husband William. She is also the great niece of the esteemed early civil rights activist and Boston newspaper publisher, William Monroe Trotter, whose home is now a National Historic Landmark. Trotter published The Boston Guardian (1901-1955). In addition to speaking about her experience as a SNCC member and Freedom Rider, Ms. Preacely conducts multi-media presentations on her historically-revered family. She further manifests her activism through art, performing her original poetry and spoken word inspired not only by her family’s background and her civil rights experience, but by today’s youth who represent the future of this country and the world. Her inspiring and uplifting poetry and short stories  appear in church and community- based publications. 

Ms. Preacely has a Master of Public Health from California State Long Beach and a B.A in Radio/Television Communications from San Francisco State University and has worked in the public health sector for over 30 years in various programs, both for government agencies and non-profits. She’s lived in the Los Angeles metro- area since 1982 and attends the renowned and politically-progressive Holman United Methodist Church of Los Angeles—one of few churches in Los Angeles visited by Dr. King. Holman’s pastor emeritus is also civil disobedience/non-violence training icon, Rev. James M. Lawson—portrayed in the award-winning film, The Butler, by another activist-artist, Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy.

Justin G. Reid is a public historian and cross-sector leader in cultural sustainability, advocacy, and philanthropy. His expertise includes decolonial place-based education, digital and public humanities, and heritage-sustaining economic development, especially in the rural U.S. Upper South.

Justin currently works as a senior program officer at Virginia Humanities, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and directs the organization’s statewide engagement efforts, and the General Assembly’s African American Cultural Resources Task Force. He previously worked for the Moton National Historic Landmark & Museum in his hometown, Farmville, VA, where his family were litigants in the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing local “massive resistance” to school desegregation. In 2013, he oversaw the opening of Moton’s national award-winning, $6M permanent exhibition on Civil Rights Era student activism. 

Justin is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and William & Mary, a co-founder of William & Mary’s Lemon Project on race, public history and memory, and a former founding board member of the annual Virginia Children’s Book Festival. He currently serves on the board of the Virginia Tourism Corporation (Virginia is for Lovers®). His partner, Irène Mathieu, is a poet and University of Virginia pediatrics researcher and professor. They reside in Central Virginia with their daughter and dog-son.

Hannah Scruggs is a public historian from Central Virginia. She has a BA in history from The College of William & Mary and an MA in Public History from North Carolina State University. Between her undergraduate degree and graduate studies, Hannah served in AmeriCorps at the Braddock Carnegie Library outside of Pittsburgh, PA, where she piloted a community history program for local teens. After graduating from NC State, Hannah worked at James Madison's Montpelier as the Research Associate for the Descendants' Project, where she worked to center and include the contributions and voices of descendants in her research. She began working at the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a Genealogy Reference Assistant in 2018. From 2021-2022, she participated in the Virginia Humanities Folklife Apprenticeship program, as an apprentice of her father, Horace Scruggs III, learning to navigate the James and Rivanna rivers as their ancestors once did. Hannah has also worked as a researcher and genealogist on several other projects, including on All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles. She currently resides in Washington, DC with her wife.

Photo: Calvin Gavion

Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which was a #1 New York Times Bestseller and a 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Nonfiction, and the poetry collection Counting Descent, which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. 

He has received fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New America, the Emerson Collective, the Art For Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation. His essays, poems, and scholarly writing have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, the Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. 

Clint is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and a 2017 recipient of the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. His two TED Talks, The Danger of Silence and How to Raise a Black Son in America, collectively have been viewed more than 9 million times. 

Previously, Clint taught high school English in Prince George’s County, Maryland where, in 2013, he was named the Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. He currently teaches writing and literature in the D.C. Central Detention Facility. He is also the host of the YouTube series Crash Course Black American History.

Photo: Justin French

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, a $16 billion international social justice philanthropy. He is a member of the Reimagining New York Commission and co-chair of NYC Census 2020. He chaired the philanthropy committee that brought a resolution to the city of Detroit’s historic bankruptcy. Under his leadership, the Ford Foundation became the first non-profit in US history to issue a $1 billion designated social bond in US capital markets for proceeds to strengthen and stabilize non-profit organizations in the wake of COVID-19.

Before joining Ford, Darren was vice president at The Rockefeller Foundation, overseeing global and domestic programs. In the 1990s, he was COO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Harlem’s largest community development organization.

Darren co-chairs New York City’s Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, and has served on the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform and the UN International Labour Organization Global Commission on the Future of Work. He co-founded both the US Impact Investing Alliance and the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy and is a founding member of the Board Diversity Action Alliance. He serves on many boards, including Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the National Gallery of Art, Carnegie Hall, the High Line, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. In the summer of 2020, he was appointed to the boards of Block, Inc. and Ralph Lauren. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and is the recipient of 16 honorary degrees and university awards, including Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal.

Educated exclusively in public schools, Darren was a member of the first Head Start class in 1965 and received BA, BS, and JD degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. He has been included on numerous leadership lists: Time’s annual 100 Most Influential People, Rolling Stone’s 25 People Shaping the Future, Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business, Ebony’s Power 100, and Out magazine’s Power 50. Most recently, Darren was named Wall Street Journal’s 2020 Philanthropy Innovator.

Born in Parkersburg, WV, Webb relocated to NYC in 1966 and was soon employed at Central Certificate Services (CCS), then a subsidiary of the New York Stock Exchange. The company later became The Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC). After 35 years of service, Webb retired in 2001.

Webb’s wife (Eva Kobus-Webb) began researching his family in the 1970s after watching the tv program, Roots. She discovered Webb’s 3rd great-grandfather, Brown Colbert, on the Monticello website in 2006. (Brown Colbert was a brother of Burwell Colbert and Wormley Hughes, son of Betty Brown, and grandson of Elizabeth Hemings.)

He is a member of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), Oliver Tilden, Camp #26. He and his wife are the parents of one daughter and the proud grandparents of a 16-year-old grandson.

American history is in Gayle Jessup White’s blood. A direct descendant of both Thomas Jefferson and those enslaved at his famous Monticello estate, her story is a real-life version of Roots – a 40-year struggle to prove that her family’s belief about its links to the author of the Declaration of Independence were true. Along the way, she unearthed not only a fascinating family saga, but sharp and searing insights into America’s conflicted past and the unsettled future.  

She recounts her journey in her recently released book, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy, published by Amisted, an imprint of HarperCollins - hailed by best-selling author Bakari Sellers as “a quintessential American story that should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t understand the true contributions of African-Americans to this nation.” 

The narrative begins in Washington, DC, where Gayle grew up in a comfortable Black middle-class neighborhood, shielded from racial issues, and continues through her career as an award-winning television reporter and communications specialist. Throughout it all, she was dogged by something she overheard during a family conversation when she was 13 years old – that her family could trace its roots to Jefferson. But the family lore was oral history passed down from an elderly relative who could not read or write. Without historical documents and other evidence, for decades validating that lore seemed impossible.  

It was not until Gayle made connections at Monticello that, with the help of a famous historian and DNA, she was able to prove that the family legend was not only true. It was also more inspiring than she had ever hoped. 

Today, Gayle works at Monticello, as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s first public relations & community engagement officer – the first descendant of Jefferson and the families he enslaved to work for the Foundation. Her position provides her unique opportunities to share her American story —and her hope that lessons learned from our past can guide us in the future—in evocative presentations and in a forthcoming book about her mother’s side of her family.


With Special Thanks to Our Sponsors

Ford Foundation

Mellon Foundation

Mitchell and Emily Rales

Mrs. Nancy Cain Marcus Robertson and Mr. Sanford Robertson

John A. Griffin Foundation, Inc.

Skyline Tent Company