One of the most complicated stories in American history--the saga of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the issue of slavery, and the slaves and freed blacks who worked Jefferson’s plantation--is going to be tackled by the Smithsonian Institution.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello announced Tuesday they are collaborating on a new exhibition on Jefferson and slavery.
“Monticello is one of the leading, if not the leading historic site, that has done brilliant research on their enslaved people. They have pioneered with the public to bring the understanding that there is more to the story of Thomas Jefferson,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, a historian and the founding director of the African American museum. “It has set the standing in terms of helping the public understand that there is more to a plantation than a house.”
“Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” is scheduled to open in January 2012 at the National Museum of American History.The African American museum is planned for a prominent space on the National Mall between the American History museum and the Washington Monument. Before its completion in 2015, the curators are showcasing exhibitions in a dedicated gallery at American History.
Jefferson’s views on slavery have been dissected by historians for centuries. The third president of the U.S., he was a slaveholder for his entire life and yet he once called slavery an “abominable crime.” The Monticello story will provide an exacting lens into this subject, given the years of research and archeological excavations about the lives of freed and enslaved people at Monticello.
Jefferson owned the 5,000 acre plantation in Virginia and hundreds of slaves worked there. Jefferson also had a well-documented relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave who traveled with him to care for his daughters when he was Ambassador to France and later lived at Monticello. Hemings had six children, who are believed to be Jefferson’s.
Mulberry Row, the slave quarters at Monticello, is undergoing restoration and will be the focus of a new exhibition at Monticello next February.
Bunch said the lives of six slave families, including the Hemings, will be a centerpiece of the exhibition. The curators from the museum and Monticello will use materials from Monticello’s Getting Word oral history project, which has interviewed 170 descendents of Jefferson’s slaves since 1993.
“The goal is not to knock Thomas Jefferson. The goal is to help people understand the complex man that was Thomas Jefferson and to understand that complexity was tied to slavery,” Bunch said.