With its groundbreaking exhibition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has taken a firm stand to focus on a controversial chapter of history: Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. In collaboration with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, the museum curators looked sharply at the slave families who belonged to Jefferson, the work of his plantation and the views of the third president.
“It allows us to centralize slavery,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the museum.
Standing outside of “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” the thematic tensions are clear. On one side of the entrance, an image of Jefferson is placed against the script of his most famous writing, the Declaration of Independence. On the other side is a reproduction of a page from Jefferson’s farm book, with slave names neatly listed. An 1845 photo of slave Isaac Jefferson Granger, a tinsmith and blacksmith, is displayed above. The National Museum of American History hosts the exhibit. The African American history museum, which will break ground Feb. 22, will open in 2015.
The lives of Monticello’s slaves have never been fully explored in an exhibit, even at the Jefferson plantation. “We had a small section in an exhibit at the visitors center, but that particular show is no longer up,” said Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, the foundation’s senior historian. But Monticello’s scholars have vigorously studied the slave families for five decades, and since 1993, compiled oral histories from descendants of Jefferson’s 600 slaves.
“This is the best-documented, best-preserved and best-studied plantation anywhere,” said Rex Ellis, a Colonial historian and the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs. “They have pushed the truth as far as it can go. And it helps us understand Jefferson through a different lens.”
That Monticello material is the heart of the exhibition, infusing details to give dimensions to the slaves’ lives as well as showing their move into public life in the freed black communities.
The work — whether as cooks, field workers, craftsmen or drivers — was hard. The produce from the slave garden was not only for the slave families but sold back to Jefferson. A section on the Nailery describes how boys, ages 10 to 16, each made eight to 10 pounds of nails a day.
The life around the center of the plantation, Mulberry Row, is told through six families: James and Philip Hubbard, George and Ursula Granger, David and Isabel Hern, Elizabeth Hemings, Joseph and Edith Fossett, and Edward and Jane Gillette. “The experiences at Monticello were not typical of most slave experiences but it is one of a kind,” Ellis said. The families continued to make their mark. William Monroe Trotter, a direct descendant of Elizabeth Hemings, went to Harvard, became a newspaper editor and was a co-founder of the Niagara Movement, the precursor of the NAACP.
Jefferson called slavery “this deplorable entanglement” but as a slaveholder, freed only nine slaves in his lifetime.
As black scholars, Ellis said they had to find a way of discussing the wrongs of slavery and examining a revered American figure. “We are not letting Jefferson off the hook. Our view is that he was a product of his time. He believed blacks were inferior. He believed in colonization,” Ellis said. Jefferson endorsed a return of blacks to Africa.
Over the years, this ambiguity has been explored in Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. The museum agrees with the most recent scholarship and scientific studies that four of Hemings’s children were likely fathered by Jefferson.
on view through Oct. 14 at the National Museum of American History. americanhistory.si.edu .
a Web site of the Monticello Foundation, it has 180 interviews with descendants of Jefferson’s slaves. www.monticello.org/gettingword .