Paradox of Liberty exhibit draws large crowds, important funding for museum

Dr. Harry R. Robinson Jr. Councilmember Kevin Felder Cheryl  Richards Gayle Jessup White Phillip Jones   by Jesse Hornbuckle
Dr. Harry R. Robinson Jr. Councilmember Kevin Felder Cheryl Richards Gayle Jessup White Phillip Jones by Jesse Hornbuckle

The Dallas Examiner

Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty at the African American Museum in Fair Park presents a view of slavery through the lives of the 607 slaves kept at the famous plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president. According to the museum, the exhibit has drawn the largest crowds in the museum’s history.

“To date, we have had 70,000 visitors,” remarked Councilman Kevin Felder, District 7, and vice president of the NAACP Dallas branch, who led the effort to bring the traveling exhibit to the museum.

Due to its popularity and historic value, the collection of relics, artwork and various other items – originally scheduled to close Dec. 31 – has been extended until Jan. 21, coinciding with Martin Luther King Day, as well as the beginning of the museum’s 45th year.

“This is a big deal. This is a big deal for Dallas. This is a big deal for me,” said Gayle Jessup White, the community engagement officer for Monticello.

Jessup is also a descendant of Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings – whose lives continue to personify the complexities, unexpected unities and deep divisions through which the new nation was created.

Like most exhibits, the national collection required fundraising and sponsorship and teamwork. Felder explained that it started with a chance meeting at the Cincinnati airport, as he and White shared a cab, that opened up the opportunity for the city. At the time, she was trying to garner more attention for the collection, and Felder was certain it would be a great fit for Dallas and the museum.

As the two discussed the details of the program over dinner, Felder said he called Dr. Harry Robinson Jr., the president and CEO of the African American Museum.

“I told him who I was sitting with and that the exhibition was looking for a traveling tour, and would he be interested,” the councilman recalled. “He screamed, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ so that was the beginning of it. I took about two years to get it here.”

That time included executives from Monticello visiting the museum in person, the negotiation of contracts, and locking down financial support to supplement the museum’s funding for the exhibit.

Funding was provided by the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, who supplied $50,000, and VisitDallas agreed to do the marketing, Felder noted.

“We had to get sponsors, so I got busy dialing people that I know. Developers, corporations, so on and so forth,” he offered. “When it was all said and done, when you add in the Office of Public Affairs and the corporate sponsors, we were able to raise $250,000 in about nine months to a year.”

Robinson emphasized that the showcase of artifacts and other ephemera was a rare collection that served a unique educational opportunity for all of Texas.

“This is going to be sort of an impetus to, ‘Let’s talk about this; let’s get the conversation going,’” he noted during the September preview, and considered the significance of such a conversation in terms of what is still lacking in schools.

“A lot more needs to be done, because what they’ve done in a lot of these textbooks is just a smattering of what happened. There’s no in-depth stuff on African American history,” the historian expressed.

The councilman confirmed that education and a public discussion were exactly what he had in mind in bringing the exhibition to the museum – not just for Black citizens of the city, but for all of its residents.

“This is American history. I want everybody to go to experience this exhibition to, again … to bring about the curiosity of, ‘Where am I really from? Who are my ancestors?’ That is what my goal is,” he asserted. “And, to start a serious conversation about race in the city of Dallas, the state of Texas, and the United States.”

Eight descendants from Monticello will be coming to the museum for a panel discussion during the extended exhibit run.

The Dallas Independent School District will also begin bringing students to view the historical display after the Christmas break, Felder announced.

There is a small admission fee for the exhibit, but admission is free on Thursdays for visitors 65 and older. Also, members of the African American Museum receive free admission.

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