Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, is one of the most revered figures in U.S. history.

As the principal author of the Declaration of Independence – which announced America’s liberation from British rule and established the rights of man – he wrote “all men are created equal,” yet Jefferson owned 600 slaves during his lifetime.

That paradox is explored in two current exhibits, which also provide a glimpse into some of the slaves who lived and worked at his plantation.

Plantation life

Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a sprawling plantation that was home not only to Jefferson and his family, but also to hundreds of enslaved African-Americans, who labored for Jefferson’s agricultural and industrial enterprises.

Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, says Jefferson was born into a culture dominated by slavery.

“In America, in his time, 20 percent of all the population was enslaved and Jefferson was one of those slave holders,” she says, “So coming to Monticello, which is the best documented, best preserved and best presented plantation probably in this hemisphere, is an opportunity for people to think about this complexity; to understand Jefferson’s ideas and aspirations and his belief in liberty, but also to see and understand the effect of slavery.”

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia, was home to hundreds of enslaved African-Americans, who worked on the third US president’s agricultural and industrial enterprises. Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia, was home to hundreds of enslaved African-Americans, who worked on the third US president’s agricultural and industrial enterprises.

Many of those enslaved people worked on Mulberry Row, the main plantation street which ran alongside the main Monticello house. It was once lined with more than 20 buildings, where up to 50 people lived and worked in blacksmithing, furniture-making and textile shops.

New signage and mini exhibitions now give visitors an idea of the various businesses that existed along Mulberry Row, and a computer animation shows how the street changed over time.

Descendants

One of the enslaved people who worked at Monticello was Wormely Hughes, nephew of Sally Hemings, a slave historians believe had six children with the president.

Hughes was Jefferson’s chief gardener, attending to his master’s prized plants and trees both in the greenhouse as well as in the outdoor gardens.

Cinder Stanton, Monticello’s senior historian, learned about Hughes and other slaves from Jefferson’s extensive records.
One of hundreds of slaves at Monticello, Isaac Granger Jefferson (1775-1850) worked as a nailmaker, tinsmith and blacksmith. He became free in the 1820s.

University of Virginia Library

One of hundreds of slaves at Monticello, Isaac Granger Jefferson (1775-1850) worked as a nailmaker, tinsmith and blacksmith. He became free in the 1820s.

But, for Stanton, records were not enough. Almost 20 years ago, she and a colleague began an oral history project to identify and interview the descendants of Monticello’s slaves.

“I think it’s a way of seeing how the institution was cruel and oppressive,” Stanton says, “but, within that institution, people were able to make valuable lives and pass on values and skills to their children and their children’s children.”

Karen Hughes White, a direct descendant of Wormely Hughes, is co-founder of the Afro American Historical Association of Fauquier County in Virginia. She attended an oral history gathering at Monticello about 15 years ago.

“I learned where my ancestors walked, I learned where they worked,” she remembers. “The tour was designed specifically for us and we knew where we fit in in the scheme of Monticello, the home of the president.”

Hughes says she has come to understand Jefferson.

“I think he was a great founding father, but I also know that he enslaved many of my ancestors and I do know that when he died, Ursula and Robert – who was my great grandfather’s father – were sold,” she says. “They were paid a price to settle some of his debts. So it’s just learning about a time of history and acknowledging it for what it was, and not trying to paint it one way or the other, but accept it just the way it was.”

Jefferson’s slaves

A related exhibit, presented by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History in Washington, highlights the stories of six slave families, and features a wall with the names of every single slave Jefferson ever owned.

Rex Ellis, co-curator of the exhibit, says in order to see Jefferson clearly, you have to see him through the eyes of his enslaved population. “And even if the only thing we know about them is their name, it is significant.”

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and almost 40 years before slavery was abolished.

He’s buried at Monticello. Several of his slaves likely rest there, too, although in unmarked graves.

 

This article was originally published by Voice of America.