History lessons: Former presidents’ homes aren’t shying away from their past with slavery

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Mulberry Row, which runs for 1,000 feet alongside the main house at Monticello, was the center of slavery and plantation life at the home of Thomas Jefferson—he owned more than 600 slaves. Photo: Stephen Barling Mulberry Row, which runs for 1,000 feet alongside the main house at Monticello, was the center of slavery and plantation life at the home of Thomas Jefferson—he owned more than 600 slaves. Photo: Stephen Barling

In his recollections, Israel Gillette, born into slavery on the Monticello plantation in 1800, recalled a striking conversation in 1824 between his master, Thomas Jefferson, and the visiting Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette, who had served in the Revolutionary War as an extremely young American major general, was visiting the property with his son, George Washington Lafayette.

Although Gillette had labored as both a household and personal servant, on this occasion he was serving as a postilion, riding one of the horses pulling his owner’s open-top carriage. Seated inside within easy earshot were Lafayette—whom Gillette called a “venerable patriot”—his son and the 81- year-old Jefferson (fewer than two years away from the grave).

Perhaps the jet-black vehicle was rolling along one of Monticello Mountain’s roundabouts, the former president and his guests enjoying the numerous breathtaking views. But when Lafayette started talking about “the condition of the colored people—the slaves,” Gillette’s ears eagerly took in every word.

“[T]he slaves ought to be free,” the Frenchman bluntly told Jefferson. “No man could rightfully hold ownership in his brother man.” He said that he’d freely “given his best services to and spent his money [on] behalf of the Americans . . . because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle—the freedom of mankind.” Yet here they were, 41 years after the end of the revolution, and “instead of all being free, a portion were [still] held in bondage.” As Gillette remembered, this notion “seemed to grieve [Lafayette’s] noble heart.”

The sickeningly horrible institution of slavery was a blight on our nation until the Civil War ended it in 1865 at the cost of 750,000 American lives. Despite the passage of 150 years, however, and despite the country’s best attempts at education, the interpretation of slavery at historic sites—the presentation of the lives of those enslaved—is still controversial, emotionally charged. At some historic properties, the perceived emotional comfort of the visitors, and that of the guide staff itself, preclude the accurate retelling of the awful conditions under which slaves toiled and lived. Here in central Virginia, however—at the plantations owned by Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe—slavery interpretation is thriving. Indeed, it’s expanding.

“Slavery is an important part of the American story,” says Katherine “Kat” Imhoff, president of the Montpelier Foundation, the organization that operates Montpelier, the Orange County home of our fourth president, Madison. After his presidency from 1809 to 1817, he lived out his remaining 19 years at Montpelier.

“Without understanding the role of slavery in the founding era,” says Imhoff, “you can’t understand what happened afterward. …It’s such a painful subject for all Americans that we’ve tended to turn away from it, to gloss over it. I really believe strongly that that’s a disservice to all of us. As the leader of a cultural institution dedicated to telling a complete, accurate and human story about our country, I see the improved interpretation of slavery as crucial.”

Montpelier

Searching for slaves’ stories

Elizabeth Chew, vice president for museum programs at Montpelier, leads a team that continues to search for narratives from Montpelier’s approximately 200 slaves. They have discovered a descendant community—direct descendants of people James Madison owned—still living nearby in central Virginia. Photo: Andrew Shurtleff
Elizabeth Chew, vice president for museum programs at Montpelier, leads a team that continues to search for narratives from Montpelier’s approximately 200 slaves. They have discovered a descendant community—direct descendants of people James Madison owned—still living nearby in central Virginia. Photo: Andrew Shurtleff

Standing in front of Montpelier on an overcast day, guide Mike Dickens delivers a slavery tour.

“Dolley’s favorite slave, a lady’s maid, was named Sukey,” says Dickens. “She was raised here in slavery and had 10 children. In 1819 Dolley wrote that Sukey had committed so many depredations against the house—by this Dolley meant stealing food, objects, pins and needles, etc.—that as punishment she sent her to Black Run, another plantation down the road. Now, this was a pretty serious punishment, being cast out of the big house into the common labor pool, no longer having ‘most favored’ status.” But then Dolley later wrote that replacing Sukey was too difficult, and she decided to bring her back “lest I [have to] labor myself.”

Slavery interpretation began at the Madisons’ home right after the Montpelier Foundation was formed in 1999, explains Vice President for Museum Programs Elizabeth Chew. (Montpelier had been open to the public earlier, but slavery there was not emphasized.)

“Soon thereafter,” she says, “Elizabeth Dowling Taylor (a slavery scholar) came here with the idea of doing research and learning what there was to learn about this slave community.” From this effort blossomed a better understanding of the Madisons’ enslaved African-Americans. Taylor has since left Montpelier—she subsequently published
A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons and was interviewed by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show”—but Chew’s staff continues searching for more Montpelier slave narratives. In central Virginia they’ve found what they call a descendant community—direct descendants of people owned by Madison still living nearby.

Just down the hill from the visitor center, in a grove of poplars separated from the Madison family cemetery, lie the remains of at least 38 of Madison’s slaves. Although the one-half-acre burial ground boasts no headstones—slave graves were normally only marked with fieldstones—a recent photograph on the adjacent signage taken after a light snowfall clearly shows a grouping of perfectly aligned human-size depressions, the result of coffin deterioration. According to the reader-rail, these “graves were dug on an axis so that the eyes of the deceased faced the sunrise.” Because close to 200 slaves lived out their lives at Montpelier, this small cemetery is but one of many. Unfortunately, none of the inhabitants can be identified by name, but one may be Sawney, who in 1769 accompanied an 18-year-old Madison to the College of New Jersey at Princeton. Back at Montpelier, Sawney later supervised a work crew responsible for several hundred acres of tobacco. He was described as “the very picture of [Father] Time with his scythe.”

Paul Jennings served as James Madison’s personal assistant during Madison’s time in the White House, as well as afterward at Montpelier. He is credited with helping to save the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington when the British burned the White House in the War of 1812. Photo: Courtesy of Montpelier
Paul Jennings served as James Madison’s personal assistant during Madison’s time in the White House, as well as afterward at Montpelier. He is credited with helping to save the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington when the British burned the White House in the War of 1812. Photo: Courtesy Estate of Sylvia Jennings

Sylvia Jennings

Montpelier is in the process of expanding its slavery interpretation in a big way. In November 2014, David M. Rubenstein—the co-founder of The Carlyle Group, a global private equity investment firm—announced he was giving Montpelier $10 million, $4 million of which was to go toward improving how the lives of Madison’s slaves are presented to the public. Imhoff says they’re now rapidly scaling up their work on the South Yard project, the reconstruction of six slave structures within a stone’s throw of the Madison mansion. One of these buildings, a 16′ by 32′ duplex for two slave families, already stands framed and roofed over, awaiting its siding.

Chew explains that, eventually, along a South Yard dirt row, “there’ll be two duplex dwellings at one end, a third dwelling perhaps not a duplex, and in between two smokehouses” and a kitchen building from an earlier period. And along with these reconstructed houses and outbuildings—and their interior furnishings—they’re going to interpret the swept-yard space in between, the area where a lot of living and working took place. It will suggest the way the South Yard functioned as the home of enslaved domestic workers. All of this is based on Montpelier’s ongoing archaeological investigations, digs that have revealed not only the exact sites of these structures, but also—based on nails and other hardware unearthed—how they were constructed.

“Madison was somewhat sensitive about the image of being a large slave owner,” says Dickens, “so the houses for those who worked in Madison’s home were better constructed and looked nicer than those of the enslaved field hands. These [South Yard] buildings had elevated, finished floors, glass windows, brick chimneys and siding instead of mud and log construction.”

“Starting in the spring of 2017,” says Imhoff, “we’ll have a permanent exhibition on slavery in the cellar level of the house. …By 2018, the work we’ve begun in the South Yard…will be open to the public. Between the two exhibitions, and in conversation with the ongoing research and oral history work we’re doing with the Montpelier descendant community, we believe we’ll have one of the best sites in the country to come face-to-face with the history of slavery in the founding era.”

Ash Lawn-Highland

Giving access to Monroe’s letters

Ash Lawn-Highland reconstructed the three-room slave quarters, a 33.5' by 16' space, based on a 1908 photograph. Alongside it stands the rebuilt plantation overseer’s house. Photo: Stephen Barling
Ash Lawn-Highland reconstructed the three-room slave quarters, a 33.5′ by 16′ space, based on a 1908 photograph. Alongside it stands the rebuilt plantation overseer’s house. Photo: Stephen Barling

Located in eastern Albemarle County, just six miles from downtown Charlottesville, Ash Lawn-Highland was the official residence of fifth president Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth, from 1799 to 1823. Monroe, who was our nation’s chief executive from 1817 to 1825, called the estate Highland. The historic property is now owned by the College of William & Mary, Monroe’s alma mater. 

Executive Director Sara Bon-Harper says the interpretation of slavery is important to Highland, “because, like all the local presidential homes from this era, slave labor was integral to the construction, maintenance and life of the plantation.” Slave labor was the basis for the plantation’s financial well-being, too. “What we’ve tried to do,” she says, “is make sure that slavery is part of all the historical interpretation…” She says they not only touch upon the lives of Highland’s slaves, but also larger slavery-related topics such as Gabriel’s Rebellion and Monroe’s involvement in the American Colonization Society.

Monroe was governor of Virginia when, on August 30, 1800, he learned that slaves just outside of Richmond, led by Gabriel Prosser, were planning—that very night—to murder their masters, set fire to the city and arm themselves with weapons taken from the state penitentiary. The rebellion was aborted when a massive thunderstorm flooded the approaches to the Virginia capital. In the atmosphere of panic that ensued, Monroe reacted with a strong hand, posting militia units about the city, fortifying the prison compound and putting the captured slaves on trial. He pardoned six of them—writing Jefferson that it was “difficult to say whether mercy or severity is the better policy”—but eventually 35 of the insurrectionists were executed.

The American Colonization Society was founded in 1816 with the goal of sending free African-Americans to the African mainland—“colonizing” them. Southerners felt strongly that the presence of free blacks in the South threatened their slave-based society. In December 1816, Monroe was part of the committee that penned and adopted the organization’s constitution. The society raised money, and in 1822 began sending free blacks to the west coast of Africa to establish the colony that eventually grew into the nation of Liberia. In 1824 the capital, Christopolis, was renamed Monrovia after then-president Monroe.

Interpreting slavery at Highland is not new—it goes back to the 1980s. Most of the guide staff’s slave references back then, however, were to unnamed cooks and house servants. “In the mid-1980s,” says Bon-Harper, “Ash Lawn-Highland reconstructed the three-room slave quarters” in back of the house. “At that moment that was fairly cutting-edge, building a dwelling that was for enslaved people. It wasn’t universally accepted as a good thing to do, reminding people about a really bad period of our history.”

In the kitchen yard behind the Monroe home, Education Programs Manager Nancy Stetz stands before the whitewashed, 33.5′ by 16′ slave quarter. “This reconstruction,” she explains, “is based on a 1908 photograph of a building that stood right here. This would have been where the domestic slaves lived.” The elongated structure features three rooms, or bays, each intended for an entire slave family. Alongside it, standing apart, is the reconstructed plantation overseer’s house.

“We know from the 1810 census that Monroe had 49 slaves,” says Stetz. “One was a manservant named Roger. He and his wife had been separated at a sale; she’d been sold south to New Orleans. Apparently Roger beseeched Monroe, asking him, if the opportunity arose: ‘Would you sell me south?’ And Monroe ended up doing it. Now, Monroe benefited, he made a profit selling a manservant to a friend in New Orleans, but I’d love to know if Roger ever met his wife again.”

Like Montpelier, Highland is expanding its slavery interpretation. “We’re working to get transcriptions of Monroe’s letters available online,” says Bon-Harper. “Slavery pervades his letters, and if we could have access to more letters we’ll have a better understanding.” There’s also a new slavery tour at Highland, which Stetz organized, that premiered last year. “Similar to the current models in museum interpretation,” she explains, “it can be guided by the visitor—they can drop in and ask questions. You can go on the traditional house tour…or you can have an interaction with somebody outside [in front of the slave quarter] who knows all the details.”

“Monroe,” sighs Stetz, “has the irony of having the capital of Liberia named after him and yet none of his slaves went. …He wrote a letter at age 71 saying he was still making his mind up on the subject of slavery.”

Monticello

Providing insight into how slaves lived

Building T, the Hemmings’ cabin, on Mulberry Row at Monticello is a 20,5’ by 12’ space built to house as many as eight people. It includes a large hearth, a sub-pit floor for storing produce and a sleeping loft above. It’s sparsely furnished with a rope bed, a three-legged stool and a small table below a sliding-glass window. Photo: Stephen Barling
Building T, the Hemmings’ cabin, on Mulberry Row at Monticello is a 20,5’ by 12’ space built to house as many as eight people. It includes a large hearth, a sub-pit floor for storing produce and a sleeping loft above. It’s sparsely furnished with a rope bed, a three-legged stool and a small table below a sliding-glass window. Photo: Stephen Barling

On a “little mountain” overlooking Charlottesville from the east stands Jefferson’s neoclassical home. After serving as third president from 1801 to 1809, he retired to Monticello for his remaining 17 years. Jefferson’s troubling contradiction, of course, is that despite being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence—and penning its marvelous Enlightenment phrase, “All men are created equal,” he owned African-American slaves throughout his adult life.

Leslie Greene Bowman, president and chief executive of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the organization that owns and operates Monticello, concurs. “Jefferson gave the nation a vision for equality,” she says, “that neither he nor the nation realized in his lifetime. As one of the best documented, preserved and researched of the period’s plantations, Monticello has human stories to tell that poignantly express the paradox of slavery in an age of liberty.”

“We want to render the slaves’ lives as fully as possible because for so long they were invisible,” explains Manager of Special Programs David Ronka. “We know these people were fathers, sons, mothers, sisters and brothers. They had real lives that we can document. We’re not about facts and figures. …We tell the stories, because the power of storytelling is really unmatched.”

On Monticello’s second floor, Steve Light, manager of house tours, shows off the newly restored family bedrooms. One was used by Ann Marks, Jefferson’s widowed youngest sister. “In her later years,” he says, “an enslaved woman named Cila stayed by her side night and day caring for her.” A bedroll in the corner illustrates this fact. In another bedroom—one occupied by Jefferson’s granddaughters, Ellen, Cornelia and Virginia Randolph—clothes strewn across the floor highlight the white attitude that it was acceptable to make work for the house slaves, because otherwise, as noted Ellen, “they’ll be infallibly idle.” In the room next door, where a cradle and a small painted wagon reveal its use as a nursery, enslaved woman Priscilla Hemmings tended the white children until they were 8. She and her husband, John, lived nearby in Building T on Mulberry Row. (Other family members spelled the last name Hemings.)

Running for 1,000 feet alongside the main house, Mulberry Row, which Bowman calls Monticello’s “epicenter of slavery and plantation life,” now includes two reconstructed slave structures completed in 2015. Their letter designations—T and L—come from labels Jefferson used when drawing a map of Mulberry Row in 1796 for insurance purposes. (Of the 17 structures then extant, two remain: the stable and a building commonly called “the weaver’s cottage.” At present there are no plans to reconstruct more.)

“These buildings allow us to add another dimension to our tours,” says Ronka. “Instead of evoking stories from bare earth, now we can look into these cabins.”

Building T, the Hemmings’ cabin, measures 20.5′ by 12′ and features a large hearth, a sub-floor pit for storing produce and a sleeping loft above. Built to house a family of as many as eight, it’s sparsely furnished with a rope bed, a three-legged stool and a small table below the sliding-glass window.

“These were a step above the housing for the field slaves,” says Ronka. Work clothes and a straw hat hanging on hooks, dominoes, marbles and a broom leaning in a corner add life to the cramped interior.

One of Thomas Jefferson’s best-known slaves, Peter Farley Fossett, was sold—along with his mother and seven brothers and sisters—in the 1827 Monticello auction following Jefferson’s death. In his 1898 memoir, Fossett recounts how his new owner threatened to whip him if he were caught with a book and how, after two escape attempts, he was sold again. Eventually gaining his freedom, Fossett moved to Cincinnati, where he became a prominent caterer, a participant in the Underground Railroad and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cumminsville. Photo: Wendell P. Dabney
One of Thomas Jefferson’s best-known slaves, Peter Farley Fossett, was sold—along with his mother and seven brothers and sisters—in the 1827 Monticello auction following Jefferson’s death. In his 1898 memoir, Fossett recounts how his new owner threatened to whip him if he were caught with a book and how, after two escape attempts, he was sold again. Eventually gaining his freedom, Fossett moved to Cincinnati, where he became a prominent caterer, a participant in the Underground Railroad and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cumminsville. Photo: Wendell P. Dabney

One of Jefferson’s primary woodworkers, John Hemmings, was extremely talented. He built a number of siesta chairs—named Campeche after the Mexican state where the design originated—based solely on his master’s description. He also constructed a desk for Ellen Randolph, and he built the body of Jefferson’s open-top carriage.

A short distance away, Building L was used in the production of nails, and for the storage of nailrod (the strips of iron from which nails were made). It features a brick forge, a large bellows and a workbench topped with nailrod and various nailmaking tools. “Later,” says Ronka, “it was lodging for nail boys who worked next door in the main 87-foot-long nailery and blacksmith shop.” One of Mulberry Row’s light industrial shops, the nailery ran on the labor of 10- to 16-year-old enslaved boys, who could be heard pounding nailrod into nails from dawn to dusk.

Slavery interpretation at Monticello commenced in 1993. A major Mulberry Row archaeological dig a decade earlier had provided much insight into the lives of its enslaved community. So too did the Getting Word initiative, started in the same year, Monticello’s oral history outreach to the descendants of the 600-plus individuals Jefferson owned. Over the next 18 years, three groundbreaking books on slavery at Monticello were published by Cinder Stanton, Monticello’s senior research historian. And, in 1998, the results of the Jefferson DNA study performed by Dr. Eugene Foster were released. The study indicated a strong possibility that Jefferson was the father of Eston Hemings, Sarah “Sally” Hemings’ youngest son. (Sally—an enslaved, mixed-race lady’s maid and seamstress—was an older sister to John Hemmings.)

The Hemings Family Tour is a recent addition to Monticello’s interpretation of slavery, and, according to Bowman, they’ve introduced “a mobile app to further reveal the landscape and lives of the enslaved.” The Hemings Family Tour presents daily slave life through the eyes of Monticello’s most famous, and best documented, slave family. And more is coming soon. “We plan to restore the south dependencies (one of Monticello’s two one-story wings) and interpret for the first time a room where curators think Sally Hemings lived,” Bowman says. “Archaeological research continues around the plantation, allowing us to engage our community with the artifacts and information we find.”

Driven by Gillette, the carriage containing Jefferson and Lafayette continued rolling across Monticello Mountain. After hearing the Frenchman boldly declare his ideas concerning emancipation, the slave anxiously awaited his owner’s response. “Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free,” wrote Gillette in his Monticello recollections, “but did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom. He seemed to think that the time had not then arrived.” Despite the vagueness clouding Jefferson’s words, Gillette wrote that his statement sent the slave’s mind soaring with its promise of freedom—one day—and perhaps a fully equal seat at the American table.

Tour info

Monticello

At Jefferson’s Monticello, two tours focus specifically on slavery:

The Slavery at Monticello Tour is a guided 45-minute walking tour of Mulberry Row featuring the two newly reconstructed slave structures. It’s offered Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in February and Presidents’ Day at 11am and 1 pm. The weekends of March 5-6 and March 12-13 you can take the tour at 11am and 1pm. During peak visitation, March 19 through October 31, it’s offered every hour on the hour from 11am until 4pm. (It is included in the price of admission or a day pass: $9 children, $20-25 adults. Reservations for this tour are not required. Tours begin on Mulberry Row near the Hemmings cabin.)

The Hemings Family Tour is a two-hour small-group interactive tour that explores slave life in both the main house and along Mulberry Row—the industrial heart of Jefferson’s plantation—using the stories of seven members of the Hemings family. It’s offered Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in February and Presidents’ Day at 1:45pm. (Charge is $27, and the tour is not recommended for children under 12. For more information, go to monticello.org.)

Montpelier

At James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier, the Slavery at Montpelier Tour is a 90-minute presentation about the historical establishment of slavery in America, the enslaved individuals who lived at Montpelier and James Madison’s personal struggle with the institution. It’s offered December 1 through February 29 on Sundays at 1pm. (Charge is $20 for adults, and it includes a tour of the mansion. For more information, go to montpelier.org.)

By next spring, Montpelier will have opened its cellar-level exhibition on slavery. And by 2018, all of the South Yard slave structures will be completed.

Ash Lawn-Highland

At James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland, the Slavery at Highland Tour is offered on Saturdays, April through October. A completely interactive tour—one during which visitors can ask questions and direct the narrative—it will give visitors an in-depth understanding of slave life at Highland. (For more information, go to AshLawnHighland.org.)

“[T]he slaves ought to be free,” the Marquis de Lafayette told Thomas Jefferson. “No man could rightfully hold ownership in his brother man.”

But then Dolley Madison later wrote that replacing Sukey was too difficult, and she decided to bring her back “lest I [have to] labor myself.”

“Without understanding the role of slavery in the founding era, you can’t understand what happened afterward. …It’s such a painful subject for all Americans that we’ve tended to turn away from it, to gloss over it. I really believe strongly that that’s a disservice to all of us,” says Katherine Imhoff, president of the Montpelier Foundation

“In the mid-1980s, Ash Lawn-Highland reconstructed the three-room slave quarters” in back of the house. “At that moment that was fairly cutting-edge, building a dwelling that was for enslaved people. It wasn’t universally accepted as a good thing to do, reminding people about a really bad period of our history,” says Ash-Lawn Highland Executive Director Sara Bon-Harper

“We want to render the slaves’ lives as fully as possible because for so long they were invisible,” explains Monticello Manager of Special Programs David Ronka. “We know these people were fathers, sons, mothers, sisters and brothers. They had real lives that we can document. We’re not about facts and figures. …We tell the stories, because the power of storytelling is really unmatched.”

–Rick Britton