Passed down: Descendants of people enslaved at Monticello work to reconnect with their families

Descendants of people enslaved at Monticello share their family stories at Northside Library. Descendants of people enslaved at Monticello share their family stories at Northside Library.

We were scattered all over the country, never to meet each other again until we were in another world,” wrote enslaved laborer Peter Fossett after his family and friends were sold in Monticello’s 1827 and 1829 estate sales.

Thomas Jefferson died in debt, and soon after his death his family auctioned off the crops, furniture, and people that Jefferson held at Monticello. The 130 enslaved people held there represented 90 percent of the appraised value of Jefferson’s property. 

At the Northside Library on January 13, a collection of descendants of those who had been enslaved at Monticello gathered to share the stories of their families. Niya Bates, Monticello’s director of African American history, moderated the panel.

“I want to thank you for going on this difficult journey with us tonight,” Bates said at the beginning of the event.

“We should not ever memorialize that sale,” said panelist Calvin Jefferson, a retired archivist and descendant of multiple Monticello enslaved families. (Jefferson noted that his surname does not come from Thomas Jefferson.) “The separation of the enslaved was a very tragic thing for the people that were separated.”

But now, the families forced apart in those traumatic diasporas are finding each other once again through painstaking genealogical work. Bates coordinates the Getting Word oral history project, which seeks to catalog the stories of these families and help descendants learn more about their ancestors. 

“It’s moving in a very deep way, the wealth of information that’s been given to us,” said Myra Anderson, a descendant of the Hern family. 

Jefferson has met some of his relatives through this process and found an immediate connection. “I’ve known you all my life, and I just met you,” he said. “It’s astounding. When we talk, it’s like we grew up together.” 

Complete genealogical information for these families often doesn’t exist. But even scant details can be comforting and empowering to descendants. “You know their names. You know what they did. You know they had kids,” said Anderson. “It’s no longer this abstract thought. You know everything about them.”

Anderson told a story about how two of her male ancestors successfully petitioned Jefferson to purchase their wives. She identified with their perseverance and attitude. “I think that spirit of advocacy runs in my DNA,” Anderson said. “That’s something I still do today.”

These tales sat untold for many years, buried by time and the pain of continued discrimination.

Joan Burton said she saw her family name, Gillette, in a book about Sally Hemings, and decided to inquire about a possible connection at Monticello. Indeed, she found that her family were descendants of enslaved people there. “I was totally bewildered by the fact that I had lived here all this time and never knew this,” Burton said.

For Burton, the desire to unearth this history is new. “I cannot say my family talked about their slave ancestors,” Burton said. “The motto was, ‘slavery was awful, and it’s over.’” 

“The pain caused by slavery still lives in many generations and in many ways,” Burton continued. “A lot of what we live with today is a result of slavery. I’m glad that it’s being discussed now because it’s something that everybody needs to know about.”

Nothing about this work is easy. “It’s a slog, looking for your family in property records,” Burton said. “But I won’t give it up.” 

The conference room at the Northside Library was full to the brim—organizers estimated more than 130 people were in attendance. While the Confederate statues still stand, the evening offered another indication that some part of Charlottesville is interested in engaging with this history, at least in a small way. 

“I am very proud to have a relative up at Monticello,” said Deborah Granger, another panelist. “You have to go up there. You have to sit there and feel their presence and what they went through. To me, I felt so overwhelmed, with their spirit going right through me.”

“I have a hard time talking about it, I’ll be honest,” said Burton. “When I go to Monticello, I go to the cemetery, because my fifth-great-grandparents are buried there. I have the feeling that I don’t really want to be there. But I can’t not go there.”

During a question period after the panel discussion, one audience member stood up and said she was an American history teacher. She asked the panelists if they had any advice for teachers trying to communicate this history.

“The answer to your questions is very simple,” said Jefferson. “Tell the truth.”

 

Correction, 1/23: An earlier version of this story referred to Joan Burton as Jill Merton.

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WOW. So you mean to tell me TJ bought AND sold slaves? He died in DEBT?
I thought he was all puppy dogs and butterflies…