By MICHAEL BERMAN
Some historical figures are so complex, that you should study the people that they were surrounded by to gain a more comprehensive perspective. In the case of Thomas Jefferson, you cannot fully understand him until you learn more about the people that made an impact on his everyday life — the enslaved families who lived at Jefferson’s Monticello.
“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” is running at the National Constitution Center through Oct. 19. The exhibit opened April 9, and details six of the enslaved families who lived and worked at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation.
The 3,500-square-foot exhibit is organized by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The exhibit, which features more than 280 objects, has appeared at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.; the Atlanta History Museum in Atlanta, Ga.; and the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, Mo.
Curator Susan Stein is vice president of museum programs at Monticello. An Abington native, she has been studying Jefferson and Monticello since 1986, but initially became interested in the United States’ third president while visiting the building where the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson wrote, was signed.
“I was really inspired by Jefferson when I visited Independence Hall when I was 8 years old,” said Stein.
Perhaps Jefferson, like all other slave owners, could never let go of his slaves because it was the only way he knew how to live from the day he was born until the day he died. They were the builders and cooks of the plantation, and caretakers of his children and grandchildren. When he was ill they took care of him; when he died they dug his grave.
Slavery was a “fundamental part of his world,” said Rex Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Growing up, more than 60 slaves lived and worked at Shadwell, the Jefferson family plantation. On display from Shadwell are buttons, shoes, buckles, and plate and wine glass fragments. Some of Jefferson’s own items, such as his Voltaire inkwell, his eyeglasses that were made in Philadelphia in 1806, and his revolving book stand that held up to five open books — much larger in size than a Kindle or an iPad — can be found in the exhibit.
Historians are able to study many aspects of Jefferson’s life, and we can partially thank the man himself for that. One of the first things visitors will see when walking into the exhibit is a scrolling list of some of his slaves, with their names and birth years — birthdates for slaves that were born in later years.
“Jefferson was an assiduous record keeper,” said Stein. “Monticello is the best documented plantation in North America.”
Jefferson kept records of his slaves’ production. One such chart was titled, “Analysis of work from Jan 1 to Mar. 31 1796,” noting how many nails his slaves made and how much profit came from it. A 10-pound bucket of nails, depicting the average amount of nails that were made in one day, is on display for visitors to lift.
A statue of Jefferson stands in front of a large screen, with a headline that says, “Remembering all of those enslaved at Monticello,” followed by the 607 names of all of Jefferson’s slaves in alphabetical order. In front of the statue is a replica of the desk Jefferson used while drafting the Declaration of Independence. Circling around the statue are more details explaining his views on slavery — his words and his actions.
Jefferson may have expressed a desire for abolishment or an emancipation plan, but he never lived to see it happen.
“We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other,” Jefferson wrote to John Homes in April 1820.
He tried to minimize harsh treatment, but even that wasn’t a guarantee — he instructed overseers not to whip slaves, but it still occurred when he was away from Monticello.
“He did not believe he could do anything publicly,” Stein explained. “He thought that the problem of slavery would be resolved in future generations. He thought that eliminating slavery is something that would require democratic endorsement.”
The exhibit highlights six of the enslaved families of Monticello — Hemings, Gillette, Fossett, Hern, Granger and Hubbard.
“To understand Jefferson, you must understand (his slaves),” said Ellis.
One of the most powerful items is the headstone of Priscilla Hemings, a nursemaid to Jefferson’s grandchildren, carved by her husband, John. John Hemings was known for his carpentry and joinery skills.
When Jefferson died he left a lot of debt — more than $1 million in today’s currency — and all of his slaves were sold, with the exception of seven. Five of those slaves were freed in his will, and two of them he had recommended be emancipated. One of those two was Sally Hemings, whom many historians believe had six children by Jefferson.
Sally Hemings mother was Elizabeth Hemings. It’s widely believed that Jefferson’s father-in-law was the father to six of Hemings children. Some of the Hemings family went on to serve in the Civil War on the Union side, some black regiments and some in the white regiments.
An interactive map of the U.S. shows where Jefferson’s slaves ended up after he died. Many didn’t go far, staying in Virginia or being transported just north to Maryland, but some ended up going to the Midwest.
The exhibit has video highlights of “Getting Word,” a 1993 project conducted by Monticello historians. Descendants of the enslaved families were interviewed, in hopes of getting word back who they were and how they viewed the plight of their ancestors.
“It is such a powerful story method because the descendants of Monticello’s enslaved people really struggled for generations to keep their families together,” said Stein. “As of today, we interviewed 180 people. There are more interviews (still) to be done.”
Many of the descendants went on to fight toward equality; a Hemings descendant was a suffragist and friend of Susan B. Anthony, and a Fossett descendant fought against racial injustice alongside W.E.B. DuBois.
For more information on the “Getting Word” project, visit www.Monticello.org/getting-word
Visitors can learn not only how the slaves of Monticello interacted with Jefferson, but a little bit about the slaves themselves, helping us learn there is more to each of them than just their name.
“Open your minds and your hearts,” said Ellis. “You can speak to them too.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello”
WHERE: National Constitution Center,
525 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19106,
WHEN: Now through Oct. 19.
TICKETS: $14.50, adults; $13, seniors $8 children ages 4-12.
INFO.: Call (215) 409-6700 or check
For information on the Constitution Center’s Spring Break programming, running April 14 to 27, visit http://constitutioncenter.org/calendar/colonial-spring-break.