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Posted at 01:43 PM ET, 01/26/2012

‘Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello’ slave exhibit opens Friday at Smithsonian’s African American museum

Press preview for the opening of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Michael R Barnes - MICHAEL R. BARNES, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, NMAAHC (IMAGES NUMBER))
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture unveils an exhibit on Friday that details slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation through the collective eyes of six slave families.

The building that will soon house the museumon the National Mall is three years from completion, so the exhibition will be hosted on the second floor of the National American History Museum.

Entitled “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” the exhibit offers a detailed look at how several families- the Hemings, the Grangers, the Hubbards, the Gillettes, the Herns and the Fossetts- lived on Jefferson’s Virginia plantation during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The curators were able to gather personal belongings and working tools of the slave families and trace where the slaves went after some of them were freed. Museum researchers were also able to determine how the families related to one another and what steps they took to teach themselves to read and gain their freedom.

“This exhibition allows us to illuminate, to recognize and to give voice to the hundreds enslaved African Americans who called Monticello home,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of the museum this week during a media preview “Rather than anonymous slaves, this human dimension to enslaved families.”

As part of exhibit’s roll out, descendents of the families enslaved at Monticello were invited to a preview. Bill Webb, 69, a descendant of Sally Hemings’ mother, Elizabeth Hemings was among them.

He came from New York and during a brief tour with his wife, looked at the pictures of his ancestors and marveled at how the museum’s staff brought part of his family’s history to life.

“It’s heavy, he said. “You don’t really know how you’re going to react. Eventually walking in it brought tears to my eyes.”

The exhibit will run through October 14.

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By  |  01:43 PM ET, 01/26/2012

Categories:  Chris Jenkins

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