Is Thomas Jefferson’s life as a slave owner a personal contradiction that tarnishes his political and moral legacy, or is it more correct to view his plantation life as a reflection of the American social materiel from which he formulated his much-vaunted ideals?
A new series of exhibitions on slave life at Monticello could shed light on a question that has sparked fierce debate from critics and apologists alike.
“This is showing a more complete Jefferson, not a dichotomous Jefferson,” said Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, senior historian at Monticello.
Today, Mulberry Row is a serene, tree-lined pathway. But during Thomas Jefferson’s life, it was the thriving nerve center of the 5,000-acre Monticello enterprise, housing over 130 individuals, free and enslaved, at any given time.
(Photo Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation)
Stanton and other scholars working in conjunction with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation are adding depth to the understanding of the lives of the slaves who lived and worked at Monticello with a new multi-year project that will involve the restoration of Mulberry Row, the plantation’s main commercial avenue.
Opening February 17, 2012, “Mulberry Row: The Landscape of Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” is designed to convey a sense of place and bring to life the stories of scores of people––enslaved and free––who lived and worked at Monticello. The exhibit’s first phase will include 11 outdoor mini-exhibitions and a smart phone application offering a virtual tour of Mulberry Row’s buildings.
On January 27, 2012, “Getting Word,” a photographic and audio retrospective built on over 100 interviews with 170 descendants of people who were enslaved at Monticello, will debut as part of a joint project between Monticello and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture entitled “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.”
Stanton said, taken together, the projects fulfill her longstanding desire to document the lives of the many people who lived at Monticello and stemmed from a conversation she had with an African-American woman touring the grounds in the early ’90s.
“I just bumped into her out there and we got talking and I was explaining what had been there in Jefferson’s time, what Mulberry Row was basically, and her response was, ‘It’s as if we’ve been erased,’” Stanton said. “And so that’s what all of this is about: to bring the majority population of Monticello back into the light.”
Located a stone’s throw from Jefferson’s house, Mulberry Row was the nerve center of the 5,000-acre Monticello enterprise, as well as being home to as many as 130 enslaved people at any given time. Working with Jefferson’s detailed farm records––which include a 1796 drawing of Mulberry Row created as an insurance document––and building on 50 years of archeology work, UVA architecture professor Earl Mark has led the effort to create painstaking three-dimensional models of the original structures.
Since most of the 20 buildings were made of wood, the remains of only four have survived in any form, including one 1809 dwelling with a stone foundation. Mark’s digital imaging will allow visitors to see the buildings rendered with great historical detail and superimposed onto the current landscape. The models will also inform the physical restoration of at least two of the buildings, likely to begin next year with the reconstruction of an iron storehouse dubbed “Building L” in farm records.
Reintroducing Mulberry Row’s buildings to Monticello’s physical landscape changes the context in which visitors experience Jefferson’s world. Stanton’s two decades of close examination of Jefferson’s financial records have made her one of the world’s foremost authorities on his personal life, and she sees the ideals he articulated in the way he conducted day-to-day life at Monticello.
“He was a product of his time and place, and he had a limited vision in terms of the capabilities and the humanity of people of African heritage,” Stanton said. “At the same time, he was a man of the Enlightenment and of the Revolutionary Era, and he’d imbibed a lot of those humanitarian principles, so the way he managed his plantation really reflected the political and philosophical Jefferson.”
Stanton noted that a runaway slave announcement posted during Jefferson’s father’s life pictured a man wearing an iron collar, whereas Jefferson encouraged the laborers in his nailery “through the stimulus of character instead of the fear of physical punishment.”
While the buildings of Mulberry Row are an important part of re-imagining day-to-day life at Monticello, Susan Stein, vice president for museum programs at Monticello, said the essence of the project is “to reveal the lives and experiences of slaves at Monticello.”
The Getting Word project began in 1993 with the goal of tracking down descendants of Monticello’s enslaved people to find out more about the individuals who were recorded in Jefferson’s farm records as items of personal property. Since its beginning, Stanton and her team conducted 100 interviews with 170 descendants, yielding the discovery of 10 previously unknown surnames of enslaved families at Monticello, and gathering an archive of over 200 photographs of their descendants from the 19th century to the present.
Building on the information collected during the process, “Mulberry Row: The Landscape of Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” will also share the life stories of men and women like Isaac Granger Jefferson, Reverend Peter Fossett, and Elizabeth Hemings. Fossett, who was recorded as an infant in Monticello farm records, gained freedom 25 years after Jefferson’s death, and later moved to Cincinnati, where he became a pre-eminent caterer and a Baptist minister. Over 1,500 people attended his funeral.
To learn more about Monticello, Mulberry Row, and slavery, visit monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery.