A new exhibition explores Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings and life at the Monticello plantation.
In September, I found myself sitting on the sprawling lawn of the elegant Monticello plantation house in Charlottesville, Virginia, waiting for a tour to begin. It had been 30 years since I was a student at the University of Virginia, or "Mr. Jefferson's University," tucked at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That was the last time I'd visited the historic home of the founder of UVA, Thomas Jefferson. There I was in awkward company, the only black person among about 30 whites, waiting for the "Slavery at Monticello" walking tour.
Back in the '80s, there was hardly a mention of the enslaved people who built Monticello and were forced to labor there. And there was nary a word about the enslaved Hemings family, least of all the slave girl Sally, who Jefferson took with him to Paris in 1787 when she was 14. While in Paris, Sally was free (slavery had already been abolished there), but she agreed to return with Jefferson into slavery as long as he promised to free any of their future children when they turned 21. They eventually had six children, most of whom Jefferson kept in bondage until age 21, or freed upon his death. (Two ran away and passed as white, but were never freed.) Jefferson never freed Sally, not even in his will.
I didn't know what to expect from the tour now that all of this information and more is currently included in the story of a historic landmark. As the only black person in the group, I tried not to look at my fellow tourists as they would occasionally try to gauge my reaction. But, I'm not sure I kept my poker face when the docent, a white male, started the tour with a trigger alert: "If you're here to hear good things about your hero, this is the wrong place. Jefferson was brilliant, but there was a dark side to him. This is it."
As we sat beneath the mulberry trees, he talked about the horrors of slavery; that there was no such thing as a "good master"; that enslaved children (including Jefferson's own black children) toiled for 12-hour days, six days a week; that 20 humans were crammed into slave quarters the size of a modern dorm room. People groaned and sighed heavily at the realities that they'd never faced. Some wept. Some asked naïve questions, signaling that this was the first time they'd ever thought about enslavement. No one abandoned the tour.
After an hour and a half, the docent ended with these words: "If you think this is all about the past, think again. I was here when the Klan descended upon Charlottesville in 2017. The very forces that made slavery possible are alive and well today." It was gratifying to witness the public acknowledgement of Jefferson as one of the most strangely compartmentalized people in history. How could the man who penned the famous words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," rape an adolescent slave and keep their children in bondage, along with 200 other human souls?
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History will take a bold look at that question in February 2019 when it brings a traveling exhibit to Detroit about slavery at Monticello. The exhibit is presented by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, and is an unprecedented exploration of the lives of six of the enslaved families who toiled on that bucolic mountaintop for generations, including the Hemingses.
"We don't know of another exhibit that tells the story of slavery from the perspective of a single family that was enslaved, instead of from the viewpoint of the enslavers," says George Hamilton, interim CEO of The Wright. "As a museum dedicated to truth-telling about our history and culture, we have a unique role to play in starting uncomfortable conversations." I have always felt that the history of slavery is White history; the story of triumph over enslavement is Black history. In this exhibit, the Jefferson Foundation is owning Jefferson's part in the propagation of slavery and white supremacy, while the descendants of families enslaved at Monticello share their stories of survival and success. I'm looking forward to the exhibit in February, which promises to finally tell those truths that, for Thomas Jefferson, should have been self-evident.
Find out more about Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and life at Monticello at monticello.org.