With all of the talk these days of liberty and citizenship, of who is a patriot and who is not, the exhibit opening Friday at the Atlanta History Center is something to consider.
“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: How the Word Is Passed Down” opens provocatively. A life-size bronze of the nation’s third president commands attention the moment a viewer enters the gallery. Behind the statue, rising above it, is a semicircular wall of names ordered alphabetically, beginning with “Abby” and ending with “Name Unknown.”
The series of first names, which number more than 600, are those of the enslaved people Jefferson owned in his lifetime. Depending upon which historian you consult, the author of the Declaration of Independence freed just nine or 11 of them. And most of that small group was granted their freedom only through the execution of Jefferson’s last will and testament.
So a viewer is faced with this: Here is someone who helped define the notion of American liberty, and who thought it should be extended to blacks, but who did not bestow it on his own human property. Here is a Founding Father and patriot who wrote of his doubts about the mental acumen and physical fortitude of black people, but who also thought they were part of humanity.
Yet for all of their moral weight, the quandaries surrounding Jefferson’s actions and intent are just the ellipses between the names on the wall. Instead, rendered boldly if not definitively in this powerful exhibit are the lives of six enslaved families whose names are among the 600.
Through 280 or more objects, documents and photographs, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello,” which runs through July 7, makes the case that the lives of these individuals represent the struggle for liberty and self-determination at the heart of the nation’s founding.
The exhibition was conceived and developed by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello outside Charlottesville, Va. It had a nine-month run last year at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and a portion of the exhibit will become a permanent part of the African American History and Culture Museum when it opens in 2015.
Though the history of American slavery is a difficult topic, cities and institutions around the South, such as Charleston, S.C., Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and the Atlanta History Center, have over the past 25 years cautiously incorporated it into the historical narrative presented to visitors. As a historic site, Monticello began that process in the 1950s with the excavation of Mulberry Row, the lane that runs along a side of Jefferson’s home. Today, only a few cornerstones remain of the buildings that once stood there. But from the mid-1700s to the late 1820s, that stretch of land was the workplace of the enslaved black people who ran the plantation: its nailery; blacksmith, carpentry and barrel-making shops and other enterprises.
It was also home to those considered to be the most skilled or favored slaves, the people who served as cooks, brewers, wet nurses, laundresses, valets and, in the case of Sally Hemings, the mother of four of Jefferson’s children who were also designated as slaves. (The Jefferson Foundation makes clear in the exhibit its belief that DNA and documentary evidence lead to the conclusion that the president was the father of Hemings’ children.) Six of those families and the stories of their descendants are the exhibit’s backbone: Granger, Fossett, Gillette, Hern, Hubbard and Hemings (also spelled Hemmings).
While the lap desk Jefferson used to draft the Declaration of Independence is on display as well as a pair of his spectacles and his silver and gold fountain pen, so too are the lath nails that the Hubbards would have forged in the nailery. A copper saute pan Edith Fossett would have used to prepare meals for Jefferson and his family and guests rests in a case. There is also a hanging cupboard made by John Hemmings out of tulip poplar, Jefferson’s favorite tree.
Because these families had such constant contact with Jefferson, there is more of a written record of their existence.
But in the 1990s, attempts to recover artifacts and recollections of slave life at Monticello took on new urgency with the “Getting Word” oral history project and an expansion of archaeological digs beyond Mulberry Row. Decades of digging along the row had unearthed partial answers to what life was like for those in the shadow of the main house. The oral history project — led by Lucia Stanton, the former chief historian of Monticello — recorded the experiences of the descendants of those six families to the present day.
The constant in all of those stories was the pursuit of full citizenship, a goal that remained elusive for generations. Some descendants battled for it by serving the Union Army in the Civil War. Another was a founder of what would become the NAACP, and yet another became the first African-American elected to the California Legislature. Then there were those whose skin was so fair that they sought greater opportunity by passing into white society and erasing any tie to an enslaved past.
“There are so many stereotypes of slavery and of slaves as passive victims who were taken care of by Jefferson or whipped or raped,” said Stanton, author of “Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.” “But these were actors in their own right trying to make a life and resisting in ways other than running away, resisting by passing on skills and developing a culture.”
The legacy narrative is a significant part of the exhibition. But what about what life was like for the bulk of Jefferson’s slaves, those who lived along the wheat and tobacco fields that paid for his lifestyle?
To find out, beginning in 1997, holes were dug every 40 feet over thousands of acres of Monticello and Shadwell, the adjacent plantation where Jefferson was born and grew up, said Elizabeth Chew, current curator of Monticello. As earth was removed, broad storylines were revealed through shards of pottery, rusted horseshoes and clay smoking pipes. Those artifacts suggested aspects of daily life for those hundreds of field workers.
But those long-lost bits could not fill gaps that needed to be filled in order to tell a story of enslavement as full as the story told by the excavation of Mulberry Row. And if there is any shortcoming in the exhibition, it is this one, though the gaps are much the fault of those who could have legally recorded the slaves’ experiences in real time, but who did not. (It was against the law for slaves to be taught to read or write.)
“To understand Monticello, you must understand the lives of three-quarters of the population of the site,” said Rex Ellis, associate director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. “The Catch-22 is evidence. You can’t tell a legitimate story without evidence. Archaeologists have had to dig deeper, look at wills, bills of sale and fragments of information rather than full-blown diaries or other documentation that would have described the lives of those enslaved people. Those six families were only a fraction of the many enslaved families there at Monticello.”
And yet their stories and the fragments of life left behind by all of the enslaved at Monticello illustrate the price paid by those who wanted the same measure of liberty described by the Founding Father who owned them.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.