Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello

The Dallas Examiner

A curated collection at the African American Museum in Fair Park offers a view of slavery in the U.S. that plainly conflicts with the concept of freedom, as well as underscores the fact that, at times, centuries-past heartbeats of basic daily existence grow into a modern lifeline that connects members of contemporary society.

Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, running from Sept. 22 to Dec. 31, is a traveling exhibition that provides a clear picture of slavery on the tobacco and wheat plantation owned by Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and primary author of The Declaration of Independence.

Dallas is the first stop on the national tour.

The bulk of the exhibit, which represents a time when slavery was a normal part of society and those enslaved were legally considered three-fifths human, includes 300 objects, works of art, documents and artifacts unearthed at Jefferson’s home, according to a joint statement released by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and the African American Museum.

Dr. Harry Robinson Jr., president and CEO of the museum, emphasized that the showcase of relics, images and other ephemera was a rare collection with an unusual purpose.

“This exhibition is very special. It’s very different from most exhibitions that have been done on slavery. This exhibition tells about the slave experience by the slaves,” he noted during a Sept. 20 preview.

“It’s interesting to see the paradox between Thomas Jefferson – his belief about slavery, and then you see that he is a man who had, what, 600 slaves. It’s interesting. And it’s interesting to see how the Hemings family and slave families moved around on Monticello.”

Sally Hemings, an African American woman enslaved at the age of 16, is featured prominently in the exhibition.

Hemings negotiated with Jefferson, ensuring that she would receive “extraordinary privileges” and achieve freedom for her children. Jefferson fathered at least six children with Hemings, four of whom survived to adulthood, as reported by the foundation and the museum.

Gayle Jessup White, Monticello’s community engagement officer and a descendant of Hemings and Jefferson, describes one aspect of the exhibition, recalling those who also played a part in American history yet who never got their due.

“Those are the lives we’re honoring. Those are the lives we learn about – people who helped shape America,” she voiced. “It’s an important moment here for Dallas.”

Jessup White affirmed that such an exhibition moves the national conversation forward.

“It allows us to talk about who we are as Americans. It allows us to talk about race, allows us to engage and understand contributions that Black people have made throughout history,” she stated. “We can talk about these things. This is us.”

As mentioned by Robinson, Jefferson, who initially inherited his slaves, seemed to be conflicted about slavery.

In a section of the exhibit entitled “The Deplorable Entanglement,” it is noted that Jefferson and other founders favorably believed that forging a new nation might bring about the end of slave ownership in the colonies.

“Emancipation would fulfill the ideal that ‘all men are created equal.’ At the same time, Jefferson and other founders did not believe that Black people had a place in the United States,” the display underscored.

“Jefferson spent much of his life wrestling with, and proposing various solutions to, this national problem. But slavery was not abolished, and he remained a slaveholder throughout his life.”

Per the joint statement, the Declaration of Independence created a new nation defined by principles of freedom and self-government, yet 20 percent of the population remained enslaved. Jefferson called slavery “an abominable crime,” yet he owned 607 people over the course of his lifetime.

The exhibit transforms human property into individuals and families, culling from more than 50 years of archaeology, documentary research and oral histories to fill in the critical human dimension missing from many resources on slavery in the U.S.

“It’s revealing another side of slavery,” the doctor remarked. “That’s why it’s significant. It’s a conversation, not a monologue. In the past it’s been a monologue. They present this to you, and this is the way it is. But here’s an exchange.”

Several enslaved families – the Hemingses, Herns, Fossetts, Hubbards, Grangers and Gillettes – are highlighted within the exhibition, not just for the major roles they played on the plantation, but because their descendants continue to this day to make up the diversity of America.

“Our sweeping American story, wonderful and woeful as it is, leaves out too many people whose contributions have been ignored or denied. This exhibit returns those forgotten men, women and children to the American narrative, restoring to them not only their place in history, but also their very humanity,” Jessup White additionally declared in a prepared statement.

Likewise, the exhibition examines the layered dynamics of the founding of America and the legacies of slavery that continues to shape the country.

At one stop in the museum, visitors are asked to consider: Had they been slaves at Monticello, would they have remained or attempted to run away? This question is surrounded by displays about the daily lives of slaves, as well as a reproduction of advertisements offering rewards for the return of runaway slaves.

Robinson expressed that there is so much information in the exhibition that everyone who visits will learn something new.

“You’re learning some stuff [you] never heard – and I was a history major in college,” he considered. “There’s some stuff that wasn’t in the textbooks.”

Admission will be free on Thursdays for visitors 65 and older. Members of the African American Museum receive free admission.

“I’d like as many people as possible to come and at least begin to get a feel, getting a glimpse of the total picture of American history,” Robinson said. “This is a part of America, and it’s a part that was left out.”

Visit http://www.aamdallas.org for hours as well as changes in the museum’s schedule during the State Fair of Texas.

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