5:07am

Sun March 11, 2012
History

Life At Jefferson's Monticello, As His Slaves Saw It

Thomas Jefferson's very existence was shaped and enabled by slavery. Slaves placed newborn Thomas in his cradle, and slaves comforted the former president on his deathbed.

People often wonder aloud how a man who dedicated his life to liberty on the one hand could hold slaves close to him with the other, says Rex Ellis, an associate director with the Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum, which looks at American history from a black perspective, has created a new exhibition, housed at the Museum of American History, called "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty."

"Throughout [Jefferson's] lifetime, he owned 607 enslaved men, women and children," says Ellis. "That paradox is what we hope to discuss, talk about and help visitors understand."

Just beyond the entrance to the exhibition, a large bronze statue of Jefferson stands before a backdrop of hundreds of names. These names, Ellis says, belong to almost every slave who worked and lived at Monticello.

As a short video on black life at Monticello plays in the background, Ellis walks past scores of artifacts made on the premises by six enslaved families. Farm tools, wooden barrels, furniture and other implements were crafted by the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, the Hubbards and the Hemingses. The Hemings family is perhaps the best known of the black Monticellans, because most historians now believe there is a high probability that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children.

It's a point that still sparks heated dissent from a vocal minority, especially the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which has been active in refuting the majority view. Indeed, the subject is so touchy, this exhibition might not have been possible even 20 years ago.

"Considering that there are those who have problems with this exhibition in 2012, I'd say that 15 years ago, it would have been pretty difficult to do something like this," says Ellis.

In the past two decades, he adds, interest in enslaved communities has grown by leaps and bounds — researchers are curious, and so are the descendants of slaves.

New Yorker Charles Shorter has come to the museum looking for his ancestors, who are descendants of the Hemings clan.

"This is really great," he says. "The family's been talking about the Shorters this and that, and I'm walking, and I say, 'God, I can't find anything!' And then I see Elizabeth Hemings, and I see her descendants and the ones who fought in the Civil War. And there is the picture of my great-great uncle and my great-grandfather."

Shorter says he possesses several family documents handed down from the first Charles Shorter, for whom he is named, that mention the Shorter-Hemings connection.

"The family gave it all to me," he says. "We didn't believe, though, that the Shorters were descended from the Hemings [family]. That was, you know, apocryphal. 'Isn't it nice? That's a great story.' And then we find out it's true."

"I'm bursting," Shorter adds, "because it validates everything that I had been told, and now it's been documented."

Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, says the exhibition's emphasis on Jefferson's relationship to his slaves is an important addition.

"I'm not a Jefferson critic — obviously, I make a living doing Jefferson studies — but I think a balanced view of Jefferson is long overdue," Onuf says. "And I think we're ready to move on from the obsession with his sex life, to get over the shock and horror that he was a slave owner, and try to make sense of him in his own time and place."

Which is exactly what Rex Ellis is trying to do.

"We are looking at Jefferson, but, more importantly to me, we are somehow acknowledging the 600 men, women and children who also were a part of Jefferson's life," Ellis says.

Men, women and children who, in fact, made Jefferson's life possible — which, in turn, gave them a part in shaping early American history.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Here in Washington, D.C., a new exhibition at the Smithsonian is inviting its visitors to reconsider what they know about Thomas Jefferson. It looks at life at Jefferson's estate, Monticello, through the eyes of the hundreds of human beings Jefferson owned.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the exhibition and came back with this report.

KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: Walk into the giant marble shoebox that is the Smithsonian's Museum of American History and go to the second floor. Go past four chrome stools that black college students once sat in as they integrated a Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter. Just around the corner is this courtly gentleman.

DR. REX ELLIS: My name is Rex Ellis. I am the associate director for Curatorial Affairs of the African American Museum of History and Culture. We're getting ready to go through an exhibition called "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty."

BATES: Thomas Jefferson's very existence was shaped and enabled by slavery. Slaves placed newborn Thomas in his cradle and slaves comforted the former president on his deathbed. Ellis says people often wonder aloud how a man who dedicated his life to liberty on the one hand could hold slaves close to him with the other.

ELLIS: Throughout his lifetime he owned 607 enslaved men, women and children. That paradox is what we hope to discuss, talk about, and help visitors understand and move through in this exhibition.

BATES: The exhibition is here courtesy of the new Museum of African American History and Culture, which looks at American history from a black perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Beyond the hill, we'll be free someday...

BATES: As a short video on black life at Monticello plays in the background, Ellis walks past scores of artifacts made on the premises by six enslaved families. Farm tools, wooden barrels, furniture and other implements were crafted by the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, the Hubbards and the Hemings. The Hemings are the best-known of the black Monticellans, because most historians now believe Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children. It's a point that still sparks heated dissent from a very vocal minority.

For a long time there was a lot of touchiness about the whole idea of Mr. Jefferson, the slave community, who might, might not have been related. Could this exhibition have been done 15, 20, 25 years ago?

ELLIS: Considering that there are those who have problems with this exhibition in 2012, I would say it that 15 years ago, it would have been pretty difficult to do something like this.

BATES: In fact, as we are talking, a bespectacled man in a blue blazer walks up to thank Ellis for his work. His name is Charles Shorter, and he has come looking for his Shorter ancestors, who are descendants of the Hemings clan.

CHARLES SHORTER: I'm looking around here trying to find the, you know, the family's been talking about - the Shorters this and that. And I'm walking around thinking, God, I can't find anything. and then I see Elizabeth Hemings, and I see her descendants and the ones who fought in the Civil War.

BATES: As Shorter continues to talk, Rex Ellis is moved, almost to tears.

SHORTER: And there is the picture of my great-great uncle and my great-grandfather.

ELLIS: Oh. Oh.

SHORTER: The Shorters are both there.

BATES: Charlie Shorter says he possesses several family documents handed down from the first Charles Shorter, for whom he is named that mention the Shorter-Hemings connection.

SHORTER: The family gave it all to me. We didn't believe, though, that the Shorters were descended from the Hemings. That was, you know, oh, apocryphal. Isn't it nice? That was a great story. And then we find out its true.

BATES: So, how does that feel?

SHORTER: I'm bursting, because this validates everything that I had been told, and now has been documented.

BATES: Wondering how a historian might feel, I called Peter Onof, who happens be the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He's seen the exhibition and says that its emphasis on Jefferson's relationship to his slaves is an important addition.

PROFESSOR PETER ONOF: I'm not a Jefferson critic. Obviously, I make a living doing Jefferson studies. But I think a balanced view of Jefferson is long overdue. And I think we're ready to move on from the obsession with his sex life, to get over the shock and horror that he was a slave owner, and try to make sense of him in his own time and place.

BATES: Which is exactly what Rex Ellis is trying to do.

ELLIS: We are looking at Jefferson, but more importantly to me, we are in some way acknowledging the 600 men, women and children who also a part of Jefferson's life.

BATES: Who, in fact, made Jefferson's life possible, which in turn, gave them a part in shaping early American history.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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