By Colleen Curran • Richmond Times-Dispatch
Aggy and Amy.
Tucker and William.
These are just seven of the names of the 607 enslaved people Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, owned.
“Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello,” a new traveling exhibit at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond, opens with a powerful statement.
Mary Lauderdale, visitor services manager for the museum, said she likes to start the exhibit at Room 607: a room bearing the names of the 607 men, women and children whom Jefferson owned throughout his lifetime.
A statue of the Founding Father is placed before the wall, staring at the names.
“I stand here and think, ‘Wow,’ ” Lauderdale said. “I feel like the way that he’s placed, he’s conflicted. And that’s what this exhibition is about.”
Monticello, Jefferson’s beautiful home just outside of Charlottesville, has been called a neoclassical masterpiece in the Palladian style.
“Jefferson was extremely accomplished, but his life wouldn’t have been what it was, the Declaration of Independence wouldn’t have been what it was, without the enslaved people who made his life possible,” said Gayle Jessup White, Monticello’s community engagement officer. “For years, the very names of the people he enslaved were lost, buried, ignored or marginalized.”
“That’s the paradox of it. Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal. But he owned scores of people. It’s very contradictory,” White added.
The traveling exhibit, which was created by Monticello for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, has been touring since 2012 and been seen by more than 1.5 million people. And now it’s finally in Richmond.
The exhibit tells the stories of six enslaved families who helped build and maintain Monticello, including an illuminating portrait of Sally Hemings.
At age 14, she traveled to London and eventually to Paris where Jefferson, age 44 at the time, was serving as the United States minister to France. There was no slavery in France and Hemings could have stayed on as a free woman.
But after two years, Jefferson persuaded her to return to Monticello with the promise of “extraordinary privileges” and that he would free her unborn children.
According to the exhibit, she returned to Virginia where, shortly afterward, she gave birth to her first child.
In 1998, a DNA study was released that suggested Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings’ children, recognizing a controversy that had raged for more than two centuries.
In 2000, after a long-standing history of avoiding the mention of Hemings’ name, Monticello released the findings of its investigation that found Jefferson had six children with Hemings. Four of those children survived into adulthood.
In the exhibit at Richmond’s Black History Museum, a short video tells the life story of Hemings, as told by her son Madison. Although there are no images of Hemings, the exhibit creates a vivid picture of her with a replica dress that she could have worn, as well as several of her belongings.
The exhibit also explores the lives of the Gillette family, the Granger family, the Herns and the Hubbards. Some were skilled woodworkers or made nails, while others cooked meals for Jefferson in the house. Their stories — their hopes and wishes, their marriages and children — are told in the exhibit.
More than 300 artifacts are included in the exhibit, including everyday tools like a toothbrush, a comb, toys and marbles.
The items “humanize these people. ... It’s about those people and their families. Not Jefferson, but the people who worked and were enslaved by him,” said Monticello’s White.
White herself is a direct descendant of Jefferson and is related to the Hemingses and the Hubbards.
When Jefferson died in 1826, he was deeply in debt. His executors were forced to sell the land, the house, and the 130 men, women and children he owned as slaves.
Only seven were spared, including two of Sally Hemings’ children. Jefferson had freed Hemings’ other two surviving children earlier.
Sally Hemings was never officially freed by Thomas Jefferson. She was permitted to leave by his daughter not long after Jefferson’s death in 1826.