Scholars recreate landscape of slavery at Monticello

For most Americans, Monticello is the home of Thomas Jefferson, an icon of American architectural expression, a treasured National Historic Landmark and the only American residence on UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List. But it’s also the best documented and best preserved early American plantation, and for that reason, a window into the obscure institution of slavery.

Isaac Granger Jefferson, a tinsmith and blacksmith, furnished one of the only firsthand accounts of slave life at Monticello in an 1847 interview. (Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)

Wait now, haven’t we had that conversation before? Thomas Jefferson and slavery. Yes, we have, around a DNA test in 1998 and long before that. Really, since a political journalist named James Callender accused Jefferson in 1803 of keeping a slave named Sally as a “concubine.” These days most scholars of American history believe that Jefferson fathered at least one child, Eston Hemings, and probably all six of the known children of Sally Hemings, a household slave and the daughter of the matriarch Elizabeth Hemings.

With the furor that discussion brought along, it was hard to hear the rest of the message that was coming out of a concerted effort to paint a fuller picture of the life of Monticello’s slaves that began in the 1950s. It was like the flash went off too long before the shutter clicked, so the picture never developed fully. The image is coming clear that Jefferson’s household slaves had their own last names, lived in distinct family units, and passed their stories of origin down through the generations in places like Boston, Petersburg, and Chilicothe. It wasn’t all about Sally Hemings. She was just one of Jefferson’s slaves, one of the 607 men, women, and children he owned during the course of his lifetime and who lived at Monticello, Poplar Forest, and other holdings. The Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, the Hubbards, and the Hughes…all families living at Monticello working sunup to sundown, some of them in buildings that weren’t 75 yards from the grand east portico of Monticello.

Monticello wasn’t simply a house on a hill. It was an enterprise, overseen by a politician who stayed away as much as six months at a time, constantly tinkered with his farm to perfect it, and used the word “family” to talk about all of the people associated with the operation of his plantation and home. When he was gone, the activities of the plantation didn’t stop, and every piece of its operation, and the work in the far flung fields that fueled the enterprise, depended on slave labor.

It’s not a divisive message, really. It just puts Jefferson in the context of his place in time, instead of leaving him somewhere as a marble bust.

“You can’t understand race in this country if you don’t understand slavery. You can’t understand slavery if you don’t understand the plantation system. The best place to understand the plantation is Monticello,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

The conversation about Jefferson and slavery is back, but this time the message isn’t going to be received as an arrow pointed at his legacy as a thinker and Founding Father of our nation. It’s about the invisible people who aren’t invisible anymore.

Last Friday, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution, opened its first ever exhibition on slavery. “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” includes over 300 artifacts from Monticello and two Smithsonian museums, assembles over 50 years of archeology and research on the enslaved community at Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, and tells the stories of six families whose ancestors lived and worked on the Mountain. On February 17, Monticello will open a second exhibition, “Mulberry Row: The Landscape of Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello.” The Foundation is also launching three related websites; two are companions to the exhibitions (slavery at, row, and, about the Getting Word oral history project. The exhibitions, websites, and other resources on Monticello’s website offer the most detailed look to date of what life was like for enslaved people from 1770-1830.

“This is going to give slavery a much more human and material dimension than people are used to thinking about,” said Elizabeth Chew, Monticello’s curator and co-curator of the Smithsonian show. “I think people look at slavery as this great big abstraction and they don’t think about knowing slaves as individuals and families as people that have stuff and houses. Slavery was different than most people think.”

To put things in perspective: After 1809, when Jefferson retired from the presidency, there were at least 12 people in his household while about 130 enslaved people, as well as hired white workers, lived at Monticello. Twenty percent of the American population and 38 percent of Virginia’s population (293,000 people) were enslaved in 1790. More people arrived in the New World in bondage than in freedom. Slaves were a fourth estate, held in place not so much by shackles and chains but through a coercive system of social control that involved the threat of violence and punishment, separation from family, and sometimes incentives.

Monticello’s website cites all the existing first-hand evidence of one of history’s most famous Sallys:

“There are only two known descriptions of Sally Hemings. The slave Isaac Jefferson remembered that she was ‘mighty near white…very handsome, long straight hair down her back.’ Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall recalled Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph describing her as ‘light colored and decidedly good looking.’”

After the DNA test, the entire world’s attention focused on Monticello for a moment, mostly to consider what, if any, effect the revelation would have on Jefferson’s consequential legacy as a principal proponent of human liberty. Senior historian Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, who had tracked the Hemings family through Jefferson’s writing and oral history, found herself at the center of a fury. The controversy arrived in the midst of her most compelling work on “Getting Word: Oral History Project,” which was initiated in 1993 to search for the narratives passed from one generation to the next from descendants of Monticello’s enslaved families. Prior to the “Getting Word” project, begun by Stanton and carried out with Project Historian Dianne Swann-Wright and consultant Beverly Gray, the knowledge of slave life at Monticello, although abundant, was limited to the written historical record—such as notes in Jefferson’s Farm Book, his memorandum or account books, and correspondence. These historical records revealed too little of the experience of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved people.

“It took a year out of my working life,” Stanton remembered. “Trying to explain the whole Sally Hemings/Jefferson thing to reporter after reporter starting from square one a hundred times. We sort of thought of life before DNA and after DNA.”

Former TJF president Dan Jordan, an advocate for sharing the organization’s mission through scholarship, used the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth to draw wide public attention to Thomas Jefferson. Curator Susan R. Stein organized “The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello” exhibition to re-create Monticello’s interior more completely than ever before, returning 150 borrowed works of art and furnishings and drawing an audience of 622,000. The 1993 commemoration also added the plantation community tour, which focused on slavery. UVA history professor and Jefferson expert Peter Onuf, an admirer of Stanton’s scholarship, invited her to write an essay in a book on slavery at Monticello, a topic she had studied but scarcely written about as a specialist on Jefferson’s personal records to that point. In addition to research on dozens of other topices, she has spent the past 19 years since working on the subject of slavery, and her latest book, Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, was published in conjunction with the two-exhibition and website roll out this month.

Stanton started her career in 1968 at Monticello as a research assistant to foundation resident director James A. Bear, and she’s been a full time historian there since the early ’80s. After years of careful research, she’s loathe to over-distill her message about what the public should think about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves. Her colleague Onuf notably said, “I have always found great pedagogical value in the sharp focus on Jefferson, because it allows us to talk about everything.”

Since 1993, Stanton has talked about slavery.

“I guess in the most simplistic way what’s important to me to try to get across—and it’s hard because people come with their own sets of assumptions and lenses—is the harshness of the institution of slavery, even here at Monticello with a pretty well-intentioned slaveholder,” she said. “But also to know that within the constraints of the institution, the people who were trapped inside of it lived remarkable lives, preserved family bonds, passed on skills, and created a rich culture.”

Historian Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, one of the world’s foremost scholars on Thomas Jefferson’s personal life, led the “Getting Word: Oral History Project,” which includes over 100 interviews with descendants of Monticello’s slaves, and authored Those Who Labor For My Happiness: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello. (Photo by Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello/Stacy Evans)

As Stanton makes way for the next set of Jefferson scholars at Monticello, her boss, Thomas Jefferson Foundation President Leslie Greene Bowman, can’t think of a better way to recognize the importance of her research and that of her colleagues than by presenting their findings on the biggest museum stage in the country: the Mall. Bowman’s professional friendship with NMAAHC Museum Director Lonnie Bunch sparked the Smithsonian partnership.

NMAAHC has maintained gallery space in the Museum of American History since 2008 and will break ground in 2012 on the construction of a new home at a site between the Air and Space Museum and the National Monument.

“We’ve been doing all this work for 50 plus years, and other than our own site, we haven’t had a national stage to present the best documented, the best researched, the best preserved plantation in America,” Bowman said.

Or take it from a direct descendant of Monticello gardener Wormley Hughes, Karen Hughes White, who knew nothing of her great-great-grandfather’s existence, even though she was running the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County when she met Stanton. “If we explain and teach the history factually, the wounds of slavery will diminish somewhat. But as long as we deny slavery as it was, as it truly was, it will be forever a sore.”

Changing the story
“I think one of the most powerful things we can do to help people pull away the filters of the Industrial Revolution and the electronic age is to help them understand that this was a plantation, and that nothing could have happened here without the labor of about 130 enslaved workers who made Monticello what it is,” Bowman explained to me in her office, which presides over a north-facing view of Jefferson’s experimental fruit orchards.

For Bowman, the opening of the “Mulberry Row” and “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” exhibitions and the new Getting Word website are the high water mark in a larger effort to treat Monticello as a 5,000-acre enterprise straddling the Rivanna River, directed by Thomas Jefferson, and centered on his Neo-classical, Roman-inspired, Palladian residence.

Scholarly interest in the Monticello plantation began in earnest in 1957, when under the direction of Jim Bear, archeologists began excavating Mulberry Row, the plantation’s central road. Located a stone’s throw from Jefferson’s house, Mulberry Row was the nerve center of the plantation, as well as being home to dozens of enslaved people at any given time.

Jefferson left detailed records—which include a 1796 drawing created as an application forinsurance that includes the anotated footprints of more than 20 dwellings, workshops, and storage sheds. The remains of only four have survived in any form, including the workmen’s house, stable, and ruins of a stone dwelling and the joiner’s shop. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation will begin the work of reintroducing several of Mulberry Row’s buildings to Monticello’s physical landscape, an initiative that will change the context in which visitors experience Jefferson’s world.

“Visitors imagine Monticello now as a pristine mountaintop, and it wasn’t. All of this was very near to the house. The ‘perfect’ mountaintop we see now was really part of a working plantation, so close to the house that I don’t think anyone will ever think of Monticello the same way again,” said Susan Stein, now Monticello’s Richard Gilder senior curator and vice president for museum programs.

In the 1980s, archeologist Bill Kelso systematically excavated the buildings that had housed the plantation’s slaves and that information began to find its way into the narrative relayed to people who participated in Monticello’s guided tours.

Dan Jordan hired Stein in 1986, at a time when Monticello’s slaves were still referred to euphemistically as servants, but that quickly changed.

“When I arrived it was the end of an era and the beginning of another,” Stein said. “The foundation had devoted considerable resources to the study of the plantation but too little was shared with the public. Archeology located lost buildings and thousands of artifacts that were left behind. Our interpretation, before I arrived, focused on the contents of the house, the architecture, and Jefferson’s family life. We had yet to share our research findings about enslaved people and the plantation.”

At least some of the enslaved people living at Monticello earned disposable income, which they used the purchase household goods like a porcelain plate. Between 1770 and Jefferson’s death in 1826, the number of discarded “fashionable ceramics” increased steadily, according to archeological research conducted on Mulberry Row. 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, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation will begin to reintroduce buildings to its landscape later this year.

Elizabeth Chew came to Monticello in 2000 as an art historian with a focus on household history. She sees Monticello’s changing representation of slavery as a story about the way history and scholarship evolve over time.

“History goes in cycles the way everything does. Maybe in the mid-20th century people were mostly interested in political history and the great founding figures like Jefferson and Washington,” Chew said. “But in academic history, things change and we become interested in the unstudied people: servants, women, slaves.”

Stein and her team, including Chew, produced the exhibitions and film in the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and are now leading the foundation’s team of archeologists, curators, educators, historians, and restoration experts in the interpretation and restoration of Mulberry Row. On February 17, a series of interpretive panels, some with sound, and an on-site animation of digital renderings of Mulberry Row will be introduced; Earl Mark of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture crafted the digital models based on archeological findings, Jefferson’s records, and additional analysis. The mini-exhibitions focus on people and place, and Stein praises Christa Dierskheide, a recent UVA Ph.D. for her efforts as the show’s assistant curator. Later this spring a hand-held application with virtual representations of the original buildings and additional information will be unveiled. The digital models are surprisingly realistic, especially when they are depicted on photographs of the actual landscape. Much of the interpretive project was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Fritz and Claudine Kundrun Foundation.

Before long, the foundation will re-create several buildings, potentially using a frame structure to represent the mass of the building or carry out complete restoration using building techniques appropriate to Jefferson’s era. Slave housing is a priority. Archeology is already underway in advance of reinstating Jefferson’s original mountaintop roads, especially the important kitchen road to Mulberry Row and kitchen path to the paling fence-enclosed garden. Later, the workmen’s house and stable will be restored. The new exhibition is designed to encourage visitors to think about Jefferson and Monticello more comprehensively—to understand Jefferson’s greatness as well as the reality of the plantation and the lives of its free and enslaved people. When Jefferson sat at his writing desk, he might have heard the sounds of the carpenter’s shop, the pounding of hammers on anvils, of carts and animals, and the shouts and conversations of the dozens of enslaved and free workers along Mulberry Row.

“It’s very hard to imagine and visualize that plantation world because it doesn’t survive in a very visible way, so what we’re trying to do is to convey that lost plantation world—and we’re thinking hard about how to do that effectively and sensitively. What we’re about to unwrap is the first phase of our work. We want to see, learn, and hear from our visitors,” said Stein.

Slave life
The story of Monticello’s enslaved people is built on a three-legged stool of archeological, documentary, and oral history, the narratives passed from one generation to the next. Artifacts like shattered plates, discarded bones, and the footprints of structures are viewed in relation to farm records, kinship studies, and accounts to understand what people ate, what jobs they did, who their family members were, what kind of houses they lived in. These new findings will be presented in the Mulberry Row exhibition and on its website.

Monticello’s head archeologist Fraser Neiman succeeded Bill Kelso, who now oversees archeology at Jamestown. Between Kelso’s work and Neiman’s, the Internet happened.
“There were hundreds of thousands of artifacts in boxes over which we had very little analytical control,” said Neiman.

Neiman’s team set about systematizing the artifacts and dating them, and in the process a story about the way things changed over time, from the 1770s to Jefferson’s death in 1826, began to emerge. The structures evolved from large one-room buildings with multiple small cellars under them in which enslaved families lived barracks-style, to one-room dwellings with one cellar or, more commonly, none at all, suggesting that slaves increasingly lived in small family-based units. “You could sort of make an argument that the emergence of family-based living situations in the late 18th century indicates that an increasing number of slaves had at least some control of who they lived with and maybe even where they lived,” Neiman said.

Another major shift in the daily lives of the enslaved population was the shift from tobacco to wheat production, which diversified the agricultural landscape. Early on, the slave diet consisted almost entirely of salted pork and cornmeal, but as time progressed, the concentration of discarded beef and sheep bones showed that it evolved as the plantation shifted from tobacco to wheat production.

Neiman also found a steadily increasing incidence of discarded “fashionable ceramics,” plates from both China and England that would have been purchased by slaves during market trips to Charlottesville, a sign of both increasing earned income and the emergence of a sense of class identity. Archeology offers a glimpse at these basic trends, but the documentary record tells a more personal story, even if it’s nearly as fragmented. Stanton’s book, for instance, reminds us that while Jefferson preferred incentive to whipping, it was still part of life, meted out by men like overseer Gabriel Lilly:

“Lilly whipped Critta Hemings’ 17-year-old son James three times in one day, when he was too ill to ‘raise his hand to his Head.’ Yet Jefferson considered it impossible to find ‘a man who fulfills my purposes better than’ Lilly.”

Descendants of Monticello’s enslaved population gathered at the plantation in 1997, just a year before a controversial DNA test confirmed the likelihood that Thomas Jefferson had fathered at least one of Sally Hemings children. (Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)

One of Jefferson’s chief projects was the creation of a semi-industrial nailery to keep young boys occupied, train them as smiths, and create revenue. This was Jefferson the Enlightenment Tinkerer trying to find better ways to make his plantation efficient, productive, and profitable.

Stanton’s book builds on the few firsthand accounts of former Monticello slaves:
“Isaac Jefferson remembered that Jefferson ‘gave the boys in the nail factory a pound of meat a week, a dozen herrings, a quart of molasses, and a peck of meal. Give them that wukked best a suit of red or blue; encouraged them mightily.’”

From those accounts come the implications of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings and the fact that all four of her living children were freed or allowed to leave Monticello by Jefferson. But there were many lives at Monticello that escaped the records.

Stanton, who had spent years combing through the documentary evidence, wanted a way into those stories. When Jefferson died in debt, his estate was auctioned. Stanton starts her book with that moment, in part, because she wants the reader to understand that being property, even without being brutalized, was a horrific condition.

“On January 15, 1827, Monticello blacksmith Joseph Fossett may have left his anvil to watch the bidding begin. His wife Edith and their eight children were among the ‘130 valuable negroes’ offered in the executor’s sale of the estate of Thomas Jefferson.”

The Fossetts, like many of the enslaved families of Monticello, ended up in southern Ohio. Their story was lost, until Stanton, Swann-Wright and Gray tracked it down.

Getting word
When Stanton embarked on “Getting Word,” she hoped she would find the missing pieces to the puzzle that the fragmentary record left out, but she quickly realized she was walking into a whole new endeavor.

“I had this naive expectation at the beginning of the project that we would get full blown stories of life at Monticello, and that’s not the kind of thing we’re getting at all,” Stanton said.

Working with Swann-Wright and Gray, both African-Americans who had experience with oral histories, the team tracked down descendants of documented slaves at Monticello and interviewed them about their families. Swann-Wright came recommended as a scholar working on the history of slavery at James Madison University and Gray had spent years interviewing African-American families in southern Ohio, including the Hemingses, who traced their family line back to Jefferson and Monticello.

In most cases, the fact of being descendants was the only detail that shed direct light on life at Monticello.

“The most important thing in the Hemings family was the family history, basically. Who was in the family tree. And we found that story was passed on at certain key moments,” Stanton said. “It was when someone turned 12 or when they graduated. It was transmitted carefully.”

What began to emerge from the interviews were distinct family histories whose roots led back to Monticello.

“When we found out that we didn’t have people with stories about what Thomas Jefferson wanted for breakfast, but they did want to tell us what they did with their lives, we didn’t shut off the tape recorder,” Swann-Wright said. “We were interested in them and what they told us was what happened to a group of people who had all started out in the same place, under the same conditions, under the same slave holder and who lived in the same country for the same amount of time.”

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, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation will begin to reintroduce buildings to its landscape later this year. (Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)

The team interviewed nearly 180 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, cross-referencing each bit of anecdotal evidence with the records.

Descendants of Monticello’s slaves served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in the Civil War and as Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. They worked as preachers, caterers, and reformers. The interviews accomplished a second goal also, gradually changing the way the people they interviewed thought about Monticello and their history.

“There were a number of times when Cinder would leave the room and the person would turn to me and say, ‘Is she O.K.?’,” Swann-Wright said. “There was a distrust of Monticello as an institution. I think that in the same way that we brought together different types of documents, we also had to show that truth didn’t exist on one side of the color line, that the institution was willing to tell the truth also.”

Think about Karen Hughes White, who knew only that a grandfather had been a preacher from Charlottesville, and met Stanton at a conference in Washington, D.C. A few months later she was standing at Monticello with her siblings and grandchildren, walking in the footsteps of Wormley Hughes, her grandfather’s grandfather.

“We pulled up to where the stables were and as we got out Cinder greeted us and said, ‘This is where Wormley the gardener would have been working.’ And that was overwhelming for me. I just felt myself starting to fill with pride and questions…speechless, just as I still am. It’s something else to know exactly where your people were, where they were enslaved and what roles they would have played in American history,” she said.

Swann-Wright said of “Getting Word” that it’s “really the way history should be done,” using records and stories to place people who are invisible to history, back in the landscape. She remembered getting chills every time she saw a wall, excavated by Fraser Neiman’s crew, that had preserved the handprint of a laborer in a piece of chinking.

Stanton said her anecdotal research will only alter the historical record in modest ways.
“One thing we found through the project is I’m pretty sure everybody had a last name. There’s such a stereotype about slaves taking their masters names after the Civil War, but it seems pretty clear that these family names had been born by the people here for generations,” Stanton said.

But she believes her discoveries can transform the way people understand the record. Back in 1992, she shared Jefferson granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge’s view that Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings was a “moral impossibility.” By the time of the DNA test in 1998, her mind had changed. It was the history, to be sure, but it was also the historian, the nights spent in kitchens talking to her colleagues and to the families who hosted them.
Wormley Hughes’ son Robert became the pastor of Union Run Baptist Church. He died in 1895. In 1997, 125 of the descendants interviewed in “Getting Word” visited the church for a service. Afterwards, they tried to locate Hughes’ grave, which had been forgotten. Reverend Ricky White brought a piece of the church’s drum set outside, pushed it into the grass, and struck something hard.

“This is all true. I was there and it’s on camera,” Stanton said. “They peeled back the grass and there was the stone and the first word that was revealed was ‘memory.’ And then it came out and it was the whole stone with the inscription for Reverend Robert Hughes, the founding minister, who was born at Monticello in 1824.”

Chew credits the culmination represented in the Smithsonian show to Stanton’s work. She calls her colleague a “rock star,” sighs when I mention her retirement, and offers a matter-of-fact summation of her contribution, respectfully designed not to make Stanton blush.

“After meticulously studying the historical record, she saw the unbelievable disparity between the vast quantity of written records about Thomas Jefferson and the complete dearth of anything personal about the enslaved community, so she wanted to find the descendants of people and see if they could help fill in the gaps in the story,” Chew said. Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, says, “Cinder Stanton has made indispensable contributions to Jefferson studies. Her work on Monticello slaves has transformed the way we think about life on the mountaintop—and therefore about Jefferson himself.”

Is it Thomas Jefferson and slavery? Or slavery and Thomas Jefferson? This is a story about how the names in a ledger book became people again, and about how people experience history.

“Once a child is able to connect and understand the role that their relatives or their ancestors or their group of people fits, then they will embrace that history, whether it’s positive or negative,” White said. “One always wants to know of whom they are descended and how they became the person they are.”

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