Jefferson's Poplar Forest

Poplar Forest is shown in this March 2011 file photo.

To raise discussion about slavery and its lasting impacts on the United States, Randolph College and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest are calling upon scholars, artists and the community at large for a two-day symposium.

The conference, “Facing the Past, Freeing the Future: Slavery’s Legacy, Freedom’s Promise,” will be held April 3-5.

Scholars will include Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family”; Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center in Richmond; and Spencer Crew, a former director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

The symposium, open to the public, was developed to celebrate an official partnership between Randolph College and Poplar Forest to share resources and add internship opportunities for students.

John D’Entremont, the Theodore H. Jack Professor of History at Randolph College, has spent the last couple days traveling around Central and Northern Virginia meeting guest speakers in person and handing out promotional material for the free assembly of presenters and panel speakers.

He and others at Randolph and Poplar Forest have been working to raise funds and to gather historians, archaeologists, performance artists, students, educators, and members of the community at large — including descendants of slaves in Bedford County — for more than a year.

The goal, he said, is to bring them all together to encourage discussion about the society left in the aftermath of slavery, even after emancipation and the elimination of Jim Crow laws designed to hinder progress of blacks.

“Black and white Americans have been sharing this continent since the early 17th century, yet they’ve never really been properly introduced. They still remain separated to a degree that is not healthy for the body politic and not healthy for any of us,” he said. “That’s the legacy of slavery and it does seem to me … we’ll never fully move past that in any healthy way unless we totally and fearlessly and completely face what slavery was and did to us.”

D’Entremont said the gap is visible “even if it’s something like the awkwardness that fills the room when people of different backgrounds seek to talk to each other.”

To encourage dialogue, Randolph and Poplar Forest are connecting the “quote unquote scholars” with the public at large, d’Entremont said.

“It’s not just scholars talking to each other and it’s not just regular people sitting around venting about issues. It’s a mutually educational experience for both the scholars and the public; a chance for scholars to really find out what’s on the publics’ mind, what do they want to know and what do they want to say to the scholarly world,” he said.

The attribute of encouraging audience comments and questions will separate this symposium from other conferences on similar subjects.

“Not many are specifically geared toward sharing information with the public. If anything, the gap between scholars and the public is growing where it ought to be shrinking,” d’Entremont said.

One event combining scholarship and people’s lives and heritage is a discussion of slave descendants moderated by Gordon-Reed, who also authored “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.”

The group will include two people from Bedford County, one of which is a descendant of Jefferson.

That conversation will highlight the importance of oral history, especially when a family line was deprived the opportunity to leave behind a paper trail, he said.

“She’s probably the best person in the universe to moderate a discussion with the descendants of slaves talking about what you do with your past when your past consists to a significant degree of un-free people,” d’Entremont said.

Following that discussion, tours at Jefferson’s historic getaway, Poplar Forest, will examine the lives of slaves on the plantation.

The nonprofit, which opens for the season today, is using the symposium as an opportunity to test the tour to hopefully add it to the regular lineup.

“The idea there is to tell both the broader story about Jefferson as a slave owner and Founding Father, but also to tell a more comprehensive story about life at Poplar Forest. Where Jefferson visited Poplar Forest as his retreat several times a year, there were entire families, they were always here. They obviously didn’t have the freedom to go where they wanted,” said Wayne Gannaway, director of institutional advancement at the Forest home.

While the day-to-day tour focuses on the house and architecture, the symposium tour will focus on the plantation landscapes and stories normally left out of the general tour.

Stories will include “what happened to enslaved people here when they got too old to work in the fields, for example, what happened when they fell in love with another person at a different plantation,” Gannaway said.

He said having renowned scholars, slave descendants and the community gathered together at its site, will provide an opportunity for reflection on Poplar Forest.

“We hope to get feedback on it from the participants of the symposium and then figure out a way to make it available on a more regular basis,” he said.

Poplar Forest

Daily operations at the historic attraction will resume today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and continue through Dec. 30, after a winter of weekends only. Admission is $15 for adults and the last tour start time is at 4:05 p.m. Details:

“Facing the Past, Freeing the Future: Slavery’s Legacy, Freedom’s Promise,” a symposium presented by Randolph College and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest will be held April 3 through 5.

Presentations include a panel discussion between scholars and community activists on ways in which candid, unstilted, mutually beneficial dialogue between scholars and the public on America’s racial past and present can be energized and sustained.

The distinguished panel will be moderated by George Mason University professor Spencer Crew, the former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and former president of Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.


Michael Blakey: National Endowment for the Humanities professor of anthropology and director of the Institute for Historical Biology, College of William and Mary; key researcher and interpreter of New York City’s African Burial Ground.

Art Carter: representing Harrisonburg-based “Coming to the Table” an organization of descendants of slaves and descendants of slaveholders, “seeking to acknowledge, understand and heal the persistent wounds of U.S. institution of slavery.”

Christy Coleman: president of Richmond’s American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, former director of Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and former director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of African American Interpretations and Presentations.

Leslie King: founder of “Black in the Burg,” an online source of news and discussion for Central Virginia’s black community; representing “Many Voices, One Community,” an organization fostering “dialogue on race and racism” with a mission “to create a racially equitable community.”

Lynn Rainville: archeologist, director of the Tusculum Institute and Research Professor in the Humanities at Sweet Briar College, chronicler of the Sweet Briar Plantation enslaved community, and author of “Hidden History: African-American Cemeteries In Virginia” (UVA Press, 2014).

Ann van de Graaf: Randolph Macon Women’s College 1974, artist, civil rights activist, co-founder of the Legacy Museum of African American History and founder of Africa House.

A detailed schedule is available at

— Source: Randolph College

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