Descendants of the Enslaved Find Their Voice at Monticello

Jun 18, 2018

On Saturday [June 16], just outside Charlottesville, several hundred African-American descendants of people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson gathered at Monticello for the unveiling of a new exhibit. Their ancestors are finally having a say. WMRA’s Jordy Yager reports.

ZACH FISHER: We are sixth generation descendants from Jefferson and Sally Hemings through their son Madison Hemings.

Twenty-five year old Zach Fisher and his brother David came from Pittsburg for the opening of Monticello’s long-awaited new exhibit called “Look Closer.” It’s centered around four rooms on the level below Thomas Jefferson’s mansion. The rooms are where he forced some of the more than 600 people he enslaved to cook for him, and it’s where some slept. For years, David Fisher explains, those rooms were something else entirely.

DAVID FISHER: It just shows how far we’ve come. I remember coming here, and they were just—I think they were bathrooms before, they were just—they didn’t know what they were, and now it’s something important, it’s something special. It creates an intimate experience where you can actually catch a glimpse of what life may have been like back then, whereas before there was not much of any representation.

Nearly half a million people tour Monticello every year. The vast majority are white or from other countries. Following James Madison’s Montpelier, the new exhibits are part of Monticello’s effort to try to tell the story of the enslaved, which for most of our history has been ignored and covered up.

Monticello’s conducted more than 200 oral histories that shape parts of the new exhibits. And that ancestor of Zach and David’s—Madison Hemings? Back in the 19th century, he wrote a detailed family history that the new exhibits incorporate into the narrative. But, as renowned historian Annette Gordon-Reed explained, for many years his writing was largely discounted, because he was black.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: The notions of white supremacy, the ideas of white supremacy filter down into the historical process. The way historians looked at this document as something untrustworthy, something that was not believable…Listening to people, having empathy for people, letting black people share power, because telling a story and being believed is a powerful thing, to have influence is a powerful thing and when we let enslaved people tell the story of slavery, to participate in the telling of the story of slavery, you change the historiography, you change historical writing, and I think it’s a step towards changing the American story.  

Next to Annette Gordon-Reed on a large stage at Saturday’s gathering was Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropies, with a $12 billion endowment. Walker said Jefferson could have freed the people he enslaved, but he valued his wealth more. Walker drew a parallel to today’s wealthy. 

DARREN WALKER: They hem and haw, and say, ‘Oh we know it’s bad, we know it’s terrible, we know it’s morally reprehensible, and the things that are said, and Charlottesville was so offensive to me. But, I’m going to buy a new big house in the Hamptons because my taxes are going down.’ And so I think the lesson for American history has not been learned, that the outcome of greed over democracy and justice, ultimately will render us a poorer nation.

The country was founded on slavery and its effects continue—from lynchings and Jim Crow laws, to redlining, police brutality, and racial disparities at every juncture. The new Monticello exhibits don’t address these in much depth, but Walker, seated next to billionaire David Rubenstein, one of Monticello’s largest donors, didn’t shy away, saying that power in this country needs to be reallocated.

WALKER: When I talk to philanthropists, I’m interested not in a conversation about what are you giving back — what are you giving up? Because that’s a big difference. I’m really not interested in a conversation that says, ‘Let me tell you I want to be more generous.’ I want to move from generosity to justice. From the idea of charity to dignity.

J.C. Jefferson Jr. and his father Calvin Jefferson trace their ancestry back to three families enslaved by the former president—the Hemings, Grangers, and Jupiter Evans, Thomas Jefferson’s personal servant. J.C. and Calvin said absolutely, equity is the goal, but that’s a long process.

J.C. JEFFERSON: It’s going to take a long time to chip away at that. Because no one wants to relinquish power, power’s not going to be relinquished by someone waking up and saying, ‘Oh, ok.’ I mean we’re seeing a resurgence of this because we came close. I mean we had President Obama doing what he could to try to level the playing field. And then, what did America do? America said, well we’re going to go back another few steps. So hopefully with stories that are coming off this plantation, we can kind of see that we’re all human. And I think that what Jefferson—I think he knew that, of course, the times didn’t dictate — because if he did, then he wouldn’t have been wealthy and most of the white men would not have been wealthy. It took free labor to build this wealth and build this privilege.

The new exhibits are a good first step, descendants said. In the future, among other things, they want more time and money spent on the enslaved burial grounds. And some called attention to the fact that this new exhibit will make Monticello money. But they found solace, they said, in President Leslie Greene Bowman’s recent announcement that Monticello is forming a partial college scholarship fund for high school seniors whose ancestors Jefferson enslaved.