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Black History

At Monticello, the descendants of slaves bring new understanding to the history of Jefferson’s home

Virginia plantation celebrates all the people who lived there and the ‘complexity’ of America’s past

The descendants are here.

Here being Monticello, the Virginia plantation near Charlottesville that was owned by founding father Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. The people who have come on this early summer day are descended from the 607 people Jefferson enslaved in his lifetime.

Shannon LaNier, 38, describes what he has learned about the “complexity of being related to a slave owner.” He is a sixth great-grandson of Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. “It’s not just cut-and-dried. Not only is he the president, he’s also a slave owner. It’s the foundation of this country,” LaNier said.

“It’s more than just being proud of all he’s done. Sometimes you’re angry. Sometimes you hate him. And sometimes you’re like, he could’ve done more. There are a lot of emotions you can feel about Thomas Jefferson.”

LaNier, who is from New York City, was at Monticello last weekend for the third formal reunion of the slaves’ descendants and for the debut of The Mountaintop Project. Years of archaeological work has revealed the slaves’ physical presence on the plantation. In addition, the 25-year-old “Getting Word” oral history project searched for the descendants of those slaves and collected the stories of their families. New maps of the estate now include the Hemings cabin, where Sally lived with her children, and the African-American graveyard, where slaves are buried.

By acknowledging the presence of Jefferson’s slaves, Monticello has been transformed from a place that once largely told visitors about the great man and his house to one that acknowledges all the people who lived there.

“Far too long, Monticello has focused on two people, Thomas Jefferson and his wife. This is the realization of that history. It is proof that it happened,” said Charles Jessup Franklin, 25, a software and electrical engineer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It was really important for me to be here.”

Franklin came with his mother, Gayle Jessup White, Monticello’s community engagement officer, and his cousin Lisa Terry and her daughter, Sophia Marcus. They are descended from Elizabeth Hemings and her owner, John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law. Peter Hemings and Sally Hemings were two of her six children with Wayles.

“It’s more than just being proud of all he’s done. Sometimes you’re angry. Sometimes you hate him. And sometimes you’re like, he could’ve done more.”

2018 marked the third formal reunion of the descendants of the slaves of Thomas Jefferson.

Steve Ruark for The Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Up to 300 descendants had registered for the Look Closer opening day event. Descendants, many wearing blue-and-white T-shirts commemorating the anniversary of Getting Word, walked through Mulberry Row, the industrial part of the plantation, and slowly explored the restored spaces where slaves worked: a dairy, a textile workshop, the Granger-Hemings kitchen, which tells the stories of three enslaved cooks. Contemporary violinist Karen Briggs — invited because Jefferson and two of his sons, Madison and Eston, played the violin — performed.

Monticello’s earliest efforts to research Jefferson’s slaves began in 1980, when an archaeological dig unearthed their presence on Mulberry Row. Slavery at Monticello, its first book about the plantation’s slaves, was published in 1996.

In 1993, the Getting Word oral history project began. Monticello also began offering tours focused on slavery that nearly 100,000 people attend each year. In 1997, Monticello hosted the first of its three Getting Word gatherings. The Jefferson DNA study, which confirmed that Jefferson fathered at least six children with Sally Hemings, was published in 1998.

Over the past two decades, Monticello has published books and reports on the slaves, held conferences and hosted exhibitions and continues to restore parts of Monticello where slaves worked.

“Two historians here at Monticello realized that a lot of the information we had about Monticello was about Thomas Jefferson,” said Niya Bates, public historian of slavery and African-American life and director of Getting Word oral history project. “It didn’t include the perspective of African-Americans, so they started this project about people who were enslaved here.

“The Life of Sally Hemings” digital exhibit is currently on display at Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

“I think that they thought they would get more information about Jefferson and about Monticello, and what we ended up finding was that the stories that have been passed down through generations have more to do with the black experience in America than they do necessarily with Monticello.

“We had all these records at Monticello,” Bates said. “We could do the old-school genealogy to trace people through birth records, death records, marriage licenses, court documents, those sort of paper trails, to find people.”

The work of the Getting Word project is nowhere near finished. Its staff continues to search for descendants of Monticello’s slaves and to collect their family histories.

“Getting Word is very much an outreach project,” said Bates. “A lot of people did group interviews … a grandmother would bring her granddaughter. People participating … are using the project to pass down to the next generation.”

Monticello is owned and operated by the nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Noting the connection between Jefferson’s legacy and the people he enslaved, foundation president and CEO Leslie Greene Bowman said, “Everything that continues to shape America, what is the best of America, and what is the worst of our past is seen here in a microcosm at Monticello.

“Jefferson remains central to the narrative here, and he’s central to American history. I don’t think we can understand the history of this country or Jefferson if we don’t understand slavery.”

“I try to tell my children who they are and where they come from.”

By acknowledging the presence of Jefferson’s slaves, Monticello has been transformed from a place that once largely told visitors about the great man and his house to one that acknowledges all the people who lived there.

Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Bowman said the opening of the new exhibits was a reminder of “just how important it was for these families to entrust their stories … and that they would be celebrated for not only the stories themselves, but their ancestors.”

“That’s at the heart of the Sally Hemings exhibit,” she said. “It’s no longer being swept under the rug like it was 50 years ago and cast aside.”

Franklin said he maintains the story of his ancestor in his family by informing them about their Hemings heritage. “I love my family,” he said. “Our ancestors were fortunate enough to be helped after slavery. I like to appreciate that. I make sure I remember the community.”

LaNier brought his wife and three children to the reunion of the Monticello slave descendants. He and his wife named one of their children, 7-year-old daughter Madison, after LaNier’s ancestor Madison Hemings, the son of Sally Hemings and Jefferson.

“I try to tell my children who they are and where they come from,” he said. He turned to Madison and asked, “Who is Thomas Jefferson?”

“Great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather?” she answered.

“She’s the seventh great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” LaNier said. “I think she’s the only one of my kids who really understands it all. … As they get older, we’ll share the story of what happened here. … At her age, she’s getting just the basics.”

Karin Berry is a general editor for The Undefeated. She is an avid reader of crime fiction and a genealogy addict.