Mabel O. Wilson

Interviewee: Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, co-director of Global Africa Lab, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Research in African American Studies

Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla

Interview Recordist: Derrick Clements

Interview date: 2018-12-11

Interview Summary: Interview with Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture at Columbia University. In this interview, Professor Wilson discusses Thomas Jefferson’s prison drawing and his role in the birth of the modern day prison.

Keywords: Prison, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, solitary confinement, debtor cells, segregation, citizenship

Transcription: Hahna Cho


Mabel Wilson: Hi, it’s Mabel Wilson. How are you? 

James Perla: Hi, Professor Wilson. I’m wonderful.

MW: Great.

JP: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Okay, actually as it turns out Deborah had a very unexpected emergency come up this morning. And so unfortunately, she sends her… her regards that she’s unable to come. She might come in slightly late, but she may [0:30] miss it entirely, especially given the fact that we’re starting slightly early. So, she apologizes very deeply for that. 

MW: Okay, not a problem. So, I’m here with Derrick. 

JP: Wonderful. 

MW: He’s the recordist.

JP: And he’s all set. He should he should be rolling over there. 

MW: There is a gigantic mic, actually, on my [laughter] face.

JP: Wonderful. Well, no, no need to be… to be nervous. I’m sure your adept at this by now, right? [1:00]

MW: Sure. 

Thomas Jefferson at the Birth of the Modern Prison

JP: Yeah. So, we, you know, as I said in the email we’re working on this series about Thomas Jefferson and the series is actually for UVA’s Bicentennial. So, the 200 Year celebration. But our series is really trying to, you know, to try to “update Jefferson” actually as one of our interviewees said for our times. Update Jefferson for our times. And so, you know part of that is digging into some of the lesser-known things about his history even here, [1:30] you know, even with Jefferson Scholars, even with people who talk about him every single day. And so the episode we’re working on right now is about Thomas Jefferson at the birth of the modern prison. And so the first maybe we can start by you know, how appropriate is that even as a way of organizing or titling the chapter, you know, to what extent was Jefferson at the birth of the modern prison?

MW: [2:00] In terms of Jefferson being at the birth of the modern prison, I am not an expert on histories of incarceration or even prison. So, from my perspective, it’s hard to say exactly where to situate Jefferson in that regard other than from what I know about looking at his architecture is to understand that along with executive functions, along [2:30] with legislative functions, and also judicial functions,  particularly when he and others were conceptualizing the organization of the state of Virginia’s governmental framework, that a prison was considered an essential part of that. So, clearly he’s thinking about that as a site to house those who break the law or who are considered, you know, outside of, you know, [3:00] lawful activities that organized, you know, this new sort of democratic republic. But how others were thinking about that, how, you know, I’m not necessarily an expert in that but I think it’s fascinating that, you know, prison is often listed as part of the architectural designs necessary for a functioning state. First, at the state level of Virginia and I know Latrobe, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, [3:30] who become he’s an Englishman who comes over and becomes an architect does build a penitentiary in Richmond and my understanding it was somewhat following earlier designs of Jefferson, which I believe have now been lost.

JP: Yes, the Virginia… I think you’re referring to the Virginia State Penitentiary. Which just in the coincidence of timing, I mean just as you’re starting out — and this is this is wonderful — but even in the coincidence of timing, you know, like the same year Jefferson publishes [4:00] the Declaration, he starts corresponding with people about reforming the criminal codes in Virginia. And so the fact that Jefferson is seen as sort of a progressive reformer, wanting to sort of abolish corporal punishment and implement sort of the more human, as he thought of it, solitary confinement. So, even just that, that sort of coincidence that of timing that at the birth of the nation at the birth of Virginia, punishment is kind of crucial [4:30] to freedom. I wonder if you can meditate on that a bit.  

MW: Yeah. No, I didn’t. Yeah, I mean not knowing fully Jefferson’s philosophy on prisons and, you know, it would certainly correspond with what I discovered in looking at the small jail that he designed later in life that there was this solitary confinement cell. And that he had actually looked at various incarceration [5:00] prison reforms in France around the role of solitary confinement of also, you know, drawing from English models. So, thinking about all right, well, how do those reforms actually translate into spatial relationships? And then built form and then, you know, how does it design? Which is, you know, the architect’s problem. That seems to make sense. Also in terms of, you know, him imagining [5:30] who… what constitutes a citizen and, you know, what is the kind of moral character necessary for citizenship and participation? So, you know, sort of trying to understand the role of justice, criminal justice, and incarceration in producing that effect seems to make sense. And you can kind of see it in this small design for this jail. [6:00]

The Prison as a Racialized and Dehumanizing Space

JP: Excellent. That’s, that sets us up perfectly I want to get into both of those things perhaps in order. So, first talking about the design itself and then going a little bit more into what you just mentioned about citizenship. So, I guess, you know, the big, big picture and I know… I understand at least that you are currently working on a book on this so I understand if this question is a little bit reductive, but sort of the big picture in terms of [6:30] what’s going on sort of at this historical moment when Jefferson starts working on these designs. And partly the question is how slavery sort of influences the architecture of early America? So, maybe just helping us a little bit to set the context so that we can get into some of Jefferson’s design itself.

MW: My current project [7:00] is a book-length manuscript called Building Race and Nation and so it looks at both the formation of a modern understanding of race. So, the emergence of, you know, sort of from Enlightenment ideas of racial difference to clearly a kind of more institutionalized scientific racism by the mid-nineteenth century, but also looking at the parallel of the rise of the nation state in the form of the United States. [7:30] But also the key word in the title is also building. So, my intent is to look at American civic architecture and its formation as a lens to understand the formation of nation formation, of race particularly whiteness in relationship to Native Americans and enslaved Africans. And so for me, you know, sort of looking looking at the built form and what that in fact organizes materially around questions of labor, [8:00] land, property, spatially, and also symbolically can be quite powerful. So, as I have been going through archives I just came across that prison. I think it’s in the Massachusetts Historical Society and I just thought, “Oh, this is fascinating.” And so I just, you know, I put the file, the jpeg aside and just, you know, ended up writing something on… for the Istanbul Biennial online publication [8:30] on e-flux around “Are we still human?” And my point is that some of us have never actually been human. So, looking at how incarceration dehumanized the bodies of others. And so, when I started to look at that particular drawing I noticed that you had labeled… each of the six cells are labeled: the two front cells are for “male and female white debtors,” the middle and the back cell [9:00] are for “male and female criminals,” and then the other two sides are “male and female negro slaves.” So, the racial labeling of those cells I thought were quite interesting. And then to think about all right, well, what was your… how were you registered within the law at that moment? And clearly the enslaved were property so they weren’t even proper political subjects [9:30] and freed blacks, as I write in the essay, you know, pose this problematic character because how could you be free and also be black? And so the organization of those cells started to sort of point to clearly questions around who had, you know, who was given kind of political rights and agency.

JP: Sure. Yeah and I want to get… dive into that slightly a little bit more deeply. But for people who may [10:00] not have seen this drawing before because not many have… Could you just describe it just for us?

Jefferson's Prison Drawing

MW: The drawing is in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society as part of collections of various drawings by Thomas Jefferson. It was done, I don’t know, I can’t remember the exact date. Around 1816 something or 20. And it [10:30] was for a county jail. So, it was not a penitentiary, it wasn’t a prison, but a local jail. They believed it was in fact, based on the design, in part built. And that was only recently recognized but there are six cells with a hallway down the middle. And each of the six cells are labeled according to whatever category you are: [11:00] debtor, criminal, or slave. And then in the middle in the back is a solitary confinement cell. So, that shows the sort of presence of some form of… belief in political reform within the design of the prison. 

JP: Excellent, and for people who are familiar with Jefferson’s many designs, does it recall anything in particular in your mind? As a speaking sort of in terms of the aesthetic [11:30] purpose?

MW: The relationship of the design… [throat clearing] Sorry, the relationship of the design to other Jefferson’s projects… it’s probably more in the vein of the utilitarian sketches that he makes probably for barns or, you know, sort of other outbuildings that are [12:00] part of his, for example, plantations, various plantations that he owns. This does clearly have a civic dimension to it. So, it’s more orderly and organized, but in the design, if I recall correctly, in some of the research that I was able to find, particularly in correspondence, is he actually does give: “This amount of bricks will be required. This is the number of nails. This is…” So, he thinks about it in a very kind of rational, [12:30] pragmatic sense of okay, this is what you will need to construct one of these. And I do think that within Jefferson’s sense of, let’s say, for the first architect, even though he was not formally trained to someone like [Benjamin Henry] Latrobe or [Charles] Bullfinch or William Thornton or some of the other architects that are coming from elsewhere from France or England, you know, who end up working in the United States, [13:00] he does see his role as someone who can bring an aesthetic sensibility around what would constitute tasteful architecture. So, that architecture is an essential component to the rise of an American culture. So, UVA is a perfect example of that that each of the pavilions were essentially to be a lesson on proportions and scales of Palladian architecture or neoclassical architecture [13:30]. And so, you know, these buildings were to have a kind of didactic purpose. So, no doubt he would be imagining this as a kind of prototype that might be replicated elsewhere.

Enlightenment Influences on Race and Architecture

JP: Right and and picking up on that. I mean, you know, in his correspondence too he notes that the aesthetic function should be a certain way of a prison that, you know, prisons shouldn’t necessarily be beautiful, right? And so, maybe sort of contrasting those too a bit that, you know, [14:00] the prison in compared to UVA’s Lawn. I know some people have remarked that on the surface level just the sort of bird’s eye view is sort of schematically similar to UVA’s Lawn. In terms of just it being sort of a rectangle with something at the top: the solitary confinement cell or the Rotunda. Your thoughts?

MW: The comparison between [14:30] the jail and UVA is a very fascinating. I mean, I never thought about that as a point of comparison, but I do think that Jefferson as an enlightened, you know, just as a product of the Enlightenment, which was obsessed with orderliness of everything having a place, everything knowing where things could…  should be and could be [15:00] located. A kind of taxonomic, you know, obsession that is also comparative. The order and organization of the jail could also be seen as in a sort of parallel to how he would organize government or how he would organize the plan of UVA. So, there is a certain belief in the power of order that is critical and at that sort of speaks to also the rise of utilitarianism and rationalism [15:30] as well at that moment people like [Jeremy] Bentham and others who, certainly by the 1820s are clearly saying “Okay, how do we produce a kind of more rationalized world?” Though, Jefferson is clearly a product of an earlier moment. You know, these new institutions that are arising in a post-revolutionary moment both in France and in the United States around modern European governmental forms [16:00] clearly show that these new spaces are also going to organize a modern society and also a modern political subject as well. And as well as produce the ‘outside.’ I mean those who do not fit within that order but who are nonetheless necessary whether it’s for their land as indigenous populations or their labor as the enslaved do become a part of the system.

JP: Right and I wonder if you can talk just a little bit more about that like how specifically [16:30] does something like architecture produce that sort of paradoxical dynamic between socialization or sort of patriotism? That might not be the right word but also exclusion, right? I wonder if you can sort of meditate like on a specific example perhaps before we dive into the prison itself?

MW: In regards to the role of architecture and how it’s reflective of this [17:00] moment around Enlightenment ideas, liberalism. For example, I would say part of kind of what I’m interested in my own work is to understand that the subject of the architect, like the subject of the citizen, like the subject of the merchant, the landowner, are all sort of modern subjects that are dependent on certain [17:30], you know, ideas of abstraction but also ideas of self-possession and self-determination. And architecture, which is a specifically European way of building, of conceptualizing building and developing methods of construction because people build all around the world and all different kinds of ways through many different processes, but architecture [18:00] is a specifically European one that does come out of the rise of humanism and certainly, you know, within the Enlightenment it becomes a kind of engine to basically build the modern state, the modern nation. And so I think it’s just critical to understand that the character — Jefferson’s an architect but he’s also a kind of more traditional gentleman [18:30], polymath architect. Benjamin Latrobe is an architect. He’s trained as an architect. So, by the 19th century, you actually have educational institutions that are much more predominantly training architects to do the work of a now secular state as opposed to architects who in the 18th century or prior to that were trying to either work for the state or work for the monarchy. And so, there’s a sort of different literal subjectivity of the architect as professional [19:00] which you see by the mid-nineteenth century, you know, that Jefferson’s also on the cusp of. And so that architecture becomes a kind of engine and we see this most clearly by the end of the 19th century with the rise of skyscrapers, planning, transportation hubs, train stations, museums… I mean these all start to organize, you know, we now call “modern society.” But as part of that, you know, that’s all in the metropol you have the colony and so [19:30] that you also have warehouses, plantation houses, docks, you have, you know, the outbuildings that aren’t necessarily designed by architects, but our buildings that are a part of this larger sort of apparatus that is, you know, sort of extracting wealth and building wealth.

Implicit Levels of Inclusion and Exclusion Within Prison Designs

JP: Right, right. And so, that’s all wonderful. Thank you so much for that. This really helps to provide that context. And so, sort of diving in then to those may be more complicated [20:00] exclusions, right? The role of the prison particularly for Jefferson. I wonder if you can sort of return to that drawing and talk a little bit about Jefferson’s system to classify people inside the prison so we know that, you know, he organized the different sort of cells according to that system as you described. But what surprised you, if anything, about the way that he was classifying people [20:30] and what does that tell us about these sort of the double-edged sword of that citizenship… inclusion and exclusion?

MW: Well, what I found fascinating about Jefferson’s organization, and this is was, you know, sort of speculative on my part when I wrote the essay, was the curious position of the debtor, the two debtor cells in the front. And debtors typically being people who may have had means, who have gone into debt, but also have the means [21:00] to get out of debt. And certainly, as we know, Thomas Jefferson lived well beyond his means and when he died was deeply in debt so much so, you know, they sold off all, you know, all of the enslaved that he owned in order to pay off those debts. So, the fact that those were the two front cells, which would have been easily accessible to the public people coming in to visit those who might be in those two cells sort of speaks to a certain class hierarchy, [21:30] clearly. And then the other two that were labeled “white criminal” to the left side. So, the back and the middle cells spoke to, you know, those who might have engaged in certain criminal activity. Again, probably classed. These might have been people who are indentured or former indentured whites, those who would have been Irish, who, you know, within the emergence of a racial [22:00] consciousness were also racialized as inferior, for example to the English. You know, it starts to speak about, you know, who has access at least to some form of redemption within the criminal system. Even if you’re, you know, incarcerated at that moment particularly around women and the ways in which women might be, you know, for crimes be able to gain, [22:30] you know, certain access to religious institutions and reform through that. But then on the right side, there are the two cells for “negro slave men and women” and clearly enslavement and blackness were associated. And that’s most likely… these might have been for runaway slaves, my speculation. Or for slave coffles that were at that period moving westward [23:00] into, you know, what was the Louisiana Purchase for, you know, the expansion of land acquisition by people who are starting to farm for cotton. So, the larger cotton plantations of the deep South. So, speculatively, I started to imagine that that’s what those cells might have been for and also for freed blacks who, you know, might have broken local laws, even though at that point, you know, they weren’t even supposed to be living in Virginia, you know, once you were free, I believe, [23:30] were supposed to leave or move out within one year, but, you know, given family histories, local relationships many people just stayed rather than leave.

Private versus Public Punishment

JP: Right. And so, you’re what you’re describing here is the prison drawing and I take it there’s no… Just to sort of underline your point, that there… In this society there was no such thing as black debtors, which is why you have the cells separated by race [24:00] as well as class and gender as you described. Is that fair to say? And can you sort of explain why that might be a little bit more?

MW: Um, yeah that I mean, I can’t say since I don’t have the historical evidence to essentially… The archival material to say that there were no black debtors, but I would imagine the, you know, given the various prohibitions on the ability of blacks to move freely even if you were free to own anything, [24:30] I would argue that ownership particularly of property was something that characterized and guaranteed whiteness. So, that property ownership was always already white in relationship to Native Americans and Africans. So, already the law was working consistently particularly after the Revolution when there was a large number of people who actually… Well, a fair number of people [25:00] who manumitted slaves they recognized that, you know, to proclaim certain ideas of freedom while owning slaves was hypocritical. But also slaves had value, so people held onto them and they were fearful of the presence of freed slaves particularly around enslaved people because that then sort of becomes a model of, you know, and of what you’re not, right? So, the proximity of those. So, there was often an attempt to create laws that kept freed blacks [25:30] as far away from, you know, regions that had slaves. So, you know, sort of that, you know, the laws… the codifications of certain ideas around who could or could not own property, you know, meant that yeah, you couldn’t get you couldn’t get loans, you couldn’t, you know, have banknotes, you couldn’t… you were very limited in terms of [26:00] access to finance. And also just having… being able to even appear in court and have a voice, to be a witness for someone in a court case. I mean they were just all kinds of prohibitions around that. 

JP: And in your article you had this wonderful meditation on the form of punishment as it related to enslaved peoples as being something that was sort of private. Whereas the function of a civic space, like a prison, to be a public form [26:30] of punishment. That was also a certain socializing function. Like freed enslaved peoples, if I’m understanding it properly from your article, that freed enslaved… freed black people formerly enslaved had to be punished publicly because enslaved peoples… their masters would enact, exact that punishment privately. If that’s… if I’m understanding the point in your article correctly. And I’ll also just point out that as we’re talking [27:00] Deborah has finally, she finally made it. So, I’m happy to say that unfortunately, you know, she was unable to get the beginning of our conversation but we’re really glad to have her here listening along.

MW: Hi, Deborah. How are you?

Deborah McDowell: Hi there. How are you?

MW: I’m well, thank you. 

DMcD: Thank you so much for doing this.  

MW: Yeah, my pleasure. 

DMcD: Yes. I had a 10:15 doctor’s appointment and by 11:40 I had not yet seen the doctor. [27:30]

MW: Oh, no.

DMcD: But, I’m now back. I raced back. 

MW: Well, glad you could make for part of it. Ah, so in reference to the question around punishment. And I, with a caveat, I’m not a special… have any fully deep understanding around the legal codes of how both freed and enslaved blacks were dealt with, particularly around Virginia law, [28:00] but my cursory understanding to some degree was to constantly allow because the enslaved were understood as property, as chattel, that the right of punishment was often left under the purview of the owner. Although, I mean, I can’t say specifically whether they were laws that, you know said, well, you can’t do this or this or this to your enslaved [28:30] property. And so, that made it more a private matter of ownership rather than something that was determined directly by law which in the case of the punishment of white citizens, for example, you know, all of that was public, civic, determined by law and, you know, within the court of law for the citizen. The freed blacks were [29:00] a little bit murkier in terms of their position, but the constant pressure was to make sure that they were regulated by law and punished severely. But often not having various sort of rights to say that I have been cheated or that was unfair or that was unlawful which often made freed blacks quite vulnerable, you know, for example vulnerable so much that they could be [29:30] re-enslaved, for example.

JP: Excellent. Did you?

The Legacy of a System Designed with Inequalities

DMcD: Yes, I think I’ll take up… I gather you’ve worked through these? Okay. All right. Well, what if anything does this history tell us about prisons today? Obviously, we don’t want to make any simplistic associations. But in all of the talk about Jeffersonian legacies in general even [30:00] a term that Jeffersonian scholars use quite regularly… I wonder if it’s a possibility or what room do we have given this history to talk about prisons today at the level of design? Are there any legacies of Jeffersonian or Jefferson’s designs?

MW: [30:30] Well, the legacy for me in Jefferson’s design of the prison and sort of my interest in sort of thinking about that small, I mean, this very tiny building. There’s just not much about it. There’s not much in his letters about the prison itself, but just looking at how the cells were labeled and how they were organized. It spoke to how not only the law dehumanized [31:00] the enslaved and anyone who is black at that moment, but that somehow the architecture was reflective of that organization and of that somehow dehumanization within the law itself. 

DMcD: Can you say more about that?

MW: Well, I would say that it’s more in [31:30] how the cells had been labeled and there was no record that I know of that could say specifically how people were treated within the prison itself so, you know, this is all speculation. But for me, the design itself, the drawing itself, and the way in which it was labeled spoke to that the law was not about [32:00] everyone being treated equally that there were already inequalities designed into the system.

Wrestling with Jefferson's Paradoxes at UVA

DMcD: Yes. Alright that makes perfect sense. So, it’s a design… a segregated design and that segregation obviously doesn’t originate with Jefferson but remains with us to this very moment, even if what remains is at some physical level invisible, [32:30] those inequalities and forms of segregation based on race remain very much with us today. We’ve been asking all of our interviewees, especially those who have a connection to UVA the following question, which you can find any point of access you’d like. What does Jefferson’s history mean to you as a former [33:00] UVA student? Does it figure in anything you teach your students? If so, how so?

MW: As a graduate of UVA and specifically the School of Architecture where, you know, Jefferson is to some extent, or certainly when I was a student, was God on pedestal. [33:30] He was always for me a very complex and I always read him as paradoxical figure. I was always fascinated by that paradox and how little that registered in the consistent elevation of his character and his accomplishments. And so, [34:00] for years I’ve written and research, you know, bits and pieces around, you know, those inherent paradoxes. And so, for my current project, Building Race and Nation, Jefferson is the perfect protagonist as Founding Father, slaveholder, some would argue rapist, architect, educator. I mean he embodies sort of all of these sort of figures in one person [34:30] and so it really allows me to understand if he is a kind of quintessential founding father, to what degree is all of this baked into the formation of the nation and all of its institutions and whether those institutions are articulated through law or through brick, marble, and glass.

Negro Building and Building Race and Nation

DMcD: Aha. So, if I could follow up there [35:00] this fascinating title, Building Race and Nation, obviously it seems as if only in the title to be a logical second project leading from Negro Building. So, what’s the relation between… what insights from Negro Building then led you to this new project Building Race and Nation? And will you give us a sneak peek [35:30] beyond what you’ve just stated? What are the arguments you want to make? 

MW: Building Race and Nation, the subtitle is like “slavery and dispossession’s influence on early American civic architecture,” although I’m working on the subtitle, which is a little wordy at this point… Is what I am terming the “prequel” to my book Negro Building [36:00] which was an examination of World’s Fairs and African-American participation in those public forums as a way of sort of making claims to citizenship and rights to power that were supposed to have been guaranteed after emancipation with constitutional amendments but clearly with Jim Crow segregation, that was not. And so, it’s interesting under Jim Crow segregation the ways in which those spaces [36:30] — because they were temporary — were constantly being used to sort of debate at all different levels what was blackness? What was black history? But also, what was the future of black peoples in the United States? However, for that project race and nation were always just a given fully-formed, you know, at the turn of the 20th century, you know, at post-reconstruction and onward understanding what those terms were and I was interested in what [37:00] were the histories of that concept? And in, particular one of the buildings, which is a pavilion that I look at in Negro Building which is the Temple of Beauty which was commissioned by W.E.B. DuBois and it’s got this weird Egyptian aesthetic and it’s the backdrop for Starve Ethiopia and it’s literally a kind of pan-African architecture. And so, he’s clearly speaking back and trying to say, [37:30] “Okay, so this is what a black architecture might be in relationship to an American architecture?” And I kept thinking, “Well, why in American architecture do we even take that for granted? Is it already racialized?” And so that sort of led me to think about, “Well, is it?” And is DuBois actually speaking directly to Jefferson? Dubois talks about “the veil,” Jefferson speaks to “a veil of monotony” in Notes on the State of Virginia. So, I’m sort of arguing my introduction [38:00] that that’s actually a very strong connection that Jefferson just never saw black people as having the capacity or aptitude to become citizens in the US which is why he was an advocate for emancipation but also the return of black people back to Africa. Even though many people had been… their families had been in the US for centuries, they were of mixed race whether it was indigenous or European and [38:30], you know, what would constitute africanness in that context would have been very complicated. But we end up with Liberia and then also Sierra Leone so that actually does come into fruition. So, that project is really an exploration of the question of nationalism and race and using American civic architecture as a lens to understand that formation.

DMcD: Aha and fascinating. How far along are you? [39:00]

MW: I am… I have two chapters completed. Hopefully we’ll have a manuscript by August of three more chapters. The first chapter specifically on the Virginia State House, which I argue is a model for the U.S. Capitol and for the White House. But even the Virginia State House, it’s a real estate scheme, it’s, you know, everything that [39:30] happens there is exactly the roadmap for how Washington D.C. was chosen, developed, literally clearing the land, mapped, lot sold off, and developed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and a various bunch of other investors.

JP: That’s amazing.

DMcD: Yes, what other what other buildings will figure?

MW: Other key buildings [40:00]… Chapter one is on the Virginia State House, chapter 2 is on the design of, well, the laying out of Washington DC. So, it’s about property and surveying and whiteness. Chapter 3 examines Washington D.C., the construction of the White House, and the U.S. Capitol, but also trying to understand a kind of cartography of slavery. You know, where were slaves? [40:30] How did they live? What was the relationship to those people who were politicians, merchants, and others within the city? Chapter 4 looks at the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society and Philadelphia that was burned down and American Colonization Societies. So, how do we contend with questions of emancipation? And what were the architectures or cartographies and sites of that? And then the last chapter is on the Smithsonian which was a specific [41:00] question around what style constituted an American civic architecture? Which chose a very Northern European aesthetic in the Romanesque and also the project of the Smithsonian as a now scientific but also scientific racial project to claim and understand America and primitivize Native Americans. So, throughout the project is an exploration of the formation of white identity and the relationship to Native American dispossession and black enslavement. [41:30]

Who Builds the Buildings?

DMcD: Wonderful. What are your thoughts when the African American Museum?

MW: Oh, wow, I wrote a book on that. You know, I think the African American Museum is, you know, a very important project. I think Lonnie Bunch, Kinshasa Conwill and all [42:00] those people who really understood what was at stake at putting a building on the National Mall were really smart and strategic around that process and what it meant. And it was clearly part of a hundred year struggle and so my book began with the past accounts for that struggle, but also sort of talks about the design of the building and how that relates to the sort of project of telling the history of blacks in the Americas. [42:30]

JP: I wonder maybe that, it sort of, we want to be mindful of your time to concluding sort of questions. Your project and I know it’s a collaborative venture about Who Builds Your Architecture? And I know not everything has to be about Jefferson but to what extent… Does Jefferson inform that? Or did being at UVA perhaps thinking about who builds, you know, the places that we occupy? You know, again, not everything has to be Jefferson he doesn’t have to [43:00] originate projects and I know it’s collaborative, but I wonder if you can maybe think about that a bit or comment on that, on that more of a sort of public facing work.

MW: The Who Builds Your Architecture project which looks at the contemporary questions of the exploitation of construction labor, particularly migrant labor, around the world, which includes the United States, certainly speaks to my interest in questions of labor which in particular like, “who builds the buildings?” [43:30] often gets left out because the architects are often seen as the intellectual labor, the creative worker, the creative capital, so to speak, behind buildings. But the construction that translates the labor, that translates that actually into built form is often written out of that equation. So, that’s very much a part of my interest in the ways in which for example enslaved labor was being used at… to build the Virginia State House, [44:00] but that was also part of the reason I became part of the design team for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA was I have been doing this research and it just sort of dovetailed perfectly with questions and things that I was interested in my own scholarly research versus, you know, work that I do as a designer.

JP: Sure, and I guess for archival reasons to do you want to say a few words on the Memorial to Enslaved Labor? In light of the project that sort of we’re doing [44:30] as well about Jefferson? 

MW: Well, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers which I’m part of a team of artists and architects and landscape architect, and who’ve been working with a great group of the President’s Commission for Slavery at the University which includes faculty, staff, students, community members, [45:00] to sort of remember the enslaved men, women,  and children who not only labored to build UVA from day one, but also maintained the buildings and the lives of the faculty and the students and their families that lived at the Academical Village until 1865. And they were emancipated and some of whom continue to work there [45:30] until their deaths. So, that project is an effort to commemorate that history. And I think for many of us it’s been a project of humanizing the enslaved, many of whom we have no names, no records of what they did, but only a speculation or projection of, you know, the numbers of people who were actually here at UVA working.

The Danger in American Exceptionalism

JP: [46:00] Wonderful. Any final thoughts? I know you’ve been very generous with your time and this has been a wonderful conversation as well. I wonder if you have any sort of final thoughts before we let you go?

MW: Yeah, I mean, I would only add that the question around the question of the legacy of Jefferson. I think the United States as a people have a history of mythologizing our place in the world. We are [46:30] an exceptional people. We are “the city on a hill.” And I think that that mythologizing of our exceptionalism has always put blinders on to the reality of the viciousness and violence that was a part of nation building… of the colonial project of nation building in this country. And I think our failure to reckon with that legacy has produced and continues to maintain the injustice and the inequality [47:00] in the United States and abroad, you know, people look at us as a kind of model. And I think the paradox of Jefferson speaks to that and we have to reckon with, you know, his legacy and talk about it and, if necessary, even monumentalize it so that there is a reminder that we are all humans and we fail as much if not more so than we succeed.

DMcD: Wonderful.  That is a [47:30] fantastic place on which to end the interview.

JP: And we will keep you up-to-date on how this project progresses but we want to just thank you again for your time and for being with us today.

MW: Sure. Yeah. Good luck with everything. 

DMcD: Good luck to you. Okay, bye-bye.

JP: Thanks so much.

MW: All right. Bye.

Niya Bates

Transcript (text only)

Interviewee: Niya Bates, Public Historian of African-American Life and Culture at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla

Interview date: 2018-07-29

Interview Summary: Interview with Niya Bates, Public Historian of African-American Life and Culture at Monticello. The interview took place at Monticello. In it, Bates discussed an exhibit on Sally Hemings, the physical environment of Monticello, Jefferson and Hemings’ relationship, Hemings family history, and the role of institutions today.

Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, Monticello, built environment, slavery, African American History

Transcription: Hahna Cho


James Perla: Do you want to maybe describe where we are right now and the purpose for our visit here to Monticello.

Deborah McDowell: We are in the splendid landscape of Monticello having taken the path through beautiful gardens, listening to [0:30] the birds, awaiting Niya Bates’s arrival to talk about, among other things, the current exhibition of Sally Hemings, the Getting Word Project and various and sundry other activities of Monticello. Niya Bates I think I see approaching us here, is an expert on all things [1:00] slavery and particularly on Sally Hemings and whatever relationship she had with Thomas Jefferson.

JP: Wonderful. Yeah. We’re kind of sitting out in front. Uh, really just parallel. To um, I guess the back of the home. Yeah, back of the Jefferson’s home. Had some nice classical architecture, those columns. It’s really just very [1:30] symmetrical.

DM: And the order of the environment even with all of the curvature, the house is very rectilinear. Everything is rectilinear. But surrounding it is all of these wonderful rolling serpentine designs replicated on the grounds of the University.

JP: Yeah. Hi. Yeah to meet you. Thanks for coming out.

(Overlapping introductions) [2:00]

DM: Thank you now. So you’re in capable hands and you’re incapable hands. So I’m gonna vacate the premises. Give my best to Carmenita. I will thank you.

JP: And I hope you don’t mind we moved things around just slightly to get two seats here.

Niya Bates: No, that’s fine. You’d be surprised. These benches go all over the mountain path. Oh yeah, I mean people [2:30] picnic out here.

DM: Oh, is that allowed?

NB: You know… “Allowed.”

JP: I was gonna say I’m like I’m using my white privilege for good here to like rearrange the things but I guess that people do that anyways.

NB: Yeah, I mean that says a lot about our average visitor.

Different Levels of Engagement at Monticello

DM: Haha, touche. Touche. What’s it like then if that’s your average visitor?

NB: Um, you know, sometimes it’s pushing a rock [3:00] uphill especially when you’re having more complicated discussions about race and identity and colorism and rape and consent, uh, it can be very difficult sometimes for people who are not necessarily open or primed for those conversations, uh even more so when we have guides who are very excellent interpreters, they’re good at telling stories but not everyone has the same level of comfort with these topics. So, I mean you can get wide-ranging [3:30] conversations from very complex theoretical, you know professor-like conversations about these issues and then you can also have people who are just coming to it for the first time and or maybe resistant.

JP: And you have to plan around that those different levels of engagement.

NB: We do have to plan around those different levels of engagement. So that’s the challenge of seeing almost half a million visitors a year.

JP: Wow. That’s yeah. Yeah, that’s amazing.

NB: Right? I mean you’re here on [4:00] peak season and I’m sure our listeners can’t see what’s going on. But you can and there are a lot of people here today and we’re running tours every five minutes and it’s that’s what a peak day looks like at Monticello.

JP: Wonderful. Yeah. Well, would you like to just describe the scene a little bit? Um, Although our listeners can’t see that you know, it’s uh, I’m sure they’ll be able to maybe picture certain elements. What are we looking at? Where are we? How are you feeling?

DM: Sure. We’re basically in Jefferson’s backyard. We’re at the West Lawn at Monticello sitting at the very back [4:30] of the garden. You can see near us some serpentine flower beds, to our left is one of the oldest trees on the mountain top. Actually on the other side of the green tree that you’re all looking at is maybe one tree that we think, cedar, we think it was here when Jefferson and the enslaved community were here. Uh, just down the hill to our right.

JP: Is it just that tree right there to the left?

NB: Yeah. It’s just behind that tree. We could actually see it from a different angle, but there is a cedar tucked in between that growth and just [5:00] all the way to our right down the hill is Mulberry Row, which is the plantation main street of Monticello. There are a few reconstructed buildings there and then of course, uh, you’re looking at the terraces left and right up the house. Uh, so to the left of the house is the South Terrace and under that would have been the carriage bays and to the right of the house is the North Terrace. I’m sorry, is the South Terrance and under the South Terrace would have been The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit, Getting Word, and the Granger Hemings kitchen some of these spaces we’re interpreting. [5:30]

JP: Wonderful. Um, yeah. So, uh, I’m glad that we’re just jumping right into it here, um, a few just like comments for I guess, um, uh sort of this interview. I’ve noticed since I’ve been sitting here that there might be some planes that are going by from time to time if there is a very obvious plane going overhead I might just kind of put my hand up and ask you to sort of pause. But yeah apart from that like we said in our email just kind of a free-flowing conversation. We have a few prepared questions that will follow up with from that [6:00] initial email that we sent you. Um, and yeah from there I’m just hoping that we can have kind of a free-flowing conversation. And so um, I guess just to start if you might just um, say your name and title and what you do here just just that we have it on.

NB: Sure. My name is Niya Bates and I’m a Public Historian of Slavery and African-American life at Monticello. I am also Director of the Getting Word African-American Oral History Project.

JP: Thanks. Um and so you were a UVA [6:30] graduate, correct? At the Carter G. Woodson Institute.

NB: That’s right. Yeah. I’m a “double Hoo.” I have a bachelor’s in African and African American Studies and a graduate degree in Architectural History and Historic Preservation.

JP: Excellent. Um, you’ve been in these parts for quite some time. Has your thoughts about Jefferson changed over time?

NB: Oh, certainly. I mean sure I was a student at the University but I also grew up in Charlottesville. This is my hometown and I don’t remember a single school year where [7:00] I didn’t come up to Monticello on a field trip and some of my earliest memories, probably when I was about nine or ten on a field trip, we’re asking a guide who Sally Hemings is and the response was “Oh, we don’t talk about her.” Um, so that was kind of my first impression of Monticello and that’s been like 20 years, of course, but um, uh, Monticello has changed a lot since then and I think um, the more that I study Jefferson the more I get to know some of the intricacies of life here at Monticello for the enslaved community, [7:30] the more complicated my opinions of him become.

DM: And would you say something about what the nature of some of those complications are say, if you had to say whatever the three top ways in which your understanding of Jefferson have been complicated since your arrival.

Jefferson's Contradictions and Writing on Race in Notes on the State of Virginia

NB: Certainly. So, my graduate degree is in African — I mean, sorry my graduate degrees in architectural history. And of course Jefferson was a brilliant architect and a great designer and he contributed so much to our kind of iconic [8:00] American architecture – bricks, columns, neo-colonial or neo-classicist architecture. Um, brought this Italianate Renaissance style to Virginia and to an early America and that’s something that I really applaud. He’s a great designer. But some of the things that are really flawed about his life are the ways that he writes about interacting with people of African descent. He writes in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, about racial hierarchy. [8:30] He writes about sort of pseudo-scientific racist beliefs that black people are inferior. That they are not capable of love, not capable of emotion, not capable of being a writer like Phyllis Wheatley. I mean that’s one of the people he discredited. Uh, and you look at his life and everything he did is provided by black people. I mean someone is dressing him, someone is stoking the fires in his room, someone is likely passing and paper, all of his meals are prepared by black enslaved people and all of his wealth [9:00] is tied to the institution of slavery. So that makes it very complex to understand him. You want to wait till they… 

JP: Probably wait till the tour passes, but I do I do have a question since you mentioned about Jeffersonian architecture that I’d like you to uh expand a bit since since we’re here, um, in this sort of like whatever he called the Lawn, you know, the um, case study in architecture. I forget the exact language that UVA’s Lawn um, but yeah, maybe we’ll just be patient here [9:30] as the tour passes and we maybe we can have some idle chatter too.

DM: Yeah, and maybe I don’t well, you can’t can’t pick her up. But I was gonna say if we could turn the mic and case.

JP: We could yeah, we can maybe see what we can do.

NB: Sure and some context on the tour we’re overhearing, this is a garden tour. So, it starts just there by the fish pond to the right side of the house. Um, and so you’re going to get a lot of history about the plants about Wormely Hughes, the enslaved gardener who really [10:00] sort of led the work with the gardens. You’ll also get a little bit about Jefferson’s beliefs about plants, trying out different types of things.

JP: He liked to experiment.

NB: He did uh, some of the memoirs from the enslaved community say that he liked to tinker in the garden himself, but we always have to remind people that majority of work is done by enslaved people.

JP: Yeah, I think tinker is a keyword. I don’t know I feel like that’s come up a lot like you. He’s always tinkering, right? [10:30]

NB: Always tinkering, uh, some people think of him as an inventor. I would call him someone who just experimented with a lot of different things, an early adapter I would say of new technology.

JP: A DIY, maybe?

NB: A DIY, maybe. That’s a good way…

JP: Um, you have some interesting thoughts about Jefferson and plants. Oh man.

DM: Well, I just have to go back through the the notes. I’ve taught it lots times and haven’t thought it through completely but uh, I have I should go back to my earlier lecture [11:00] notes where when Jefferson is talking about plants and nature and botanical matters. When he’s talking about hybridizing, for example, the language of the text just become so much more excitable and in many cases, it’s my students would think it was just the imaginings of a mad middle-aged school teacher, but I would say that the language became [11:30] even slightly eroticized at those moments when he is talking about hybridizing. It’s in the botanical world, but it’s clearly extrapolable or can be generalized to at least think about other things.

JP: So, in his language, in the, in the prose, it almost gets and hybridizing? So, this is like when you join plants together, sort of tinkering in the garden.

DM: Yeah. It’s it’s um at those moments where he’s talking about [12:00] hybridity in the botanical world. Again, this is all interpretive. This is when people sometimes scoff at literary scholars because it’s not anything you can prove. This is all interpretation.

JP: But it has some insights into perhaps his… Yeah. His worldview and experiences?

DM: Yes. Because there are always ways when people are writing where language exceeds our own grasp. Language, exceeds our intentions. [12:30] We know what we want to say, right? We know how we want to say it even but somehow there is an inevitable slip between what we want and imagine and what actually appears.

NB: Right, and for him he’s also thinking about his legacy. So it’s more about how people remember it or how people perceive his language. I mean….

JP: Yeah, and he said she mentioned such a measured writer. So, for those moments where it’s almost like there’s less, um, the stakes are a little bit less high? [13:00] You know, there’s not as much stakes in talking about plants and grafting like, you know, um, botanical things together and so maybe that’s a little part of it where those, that is the slippage? Maybe? I don’t know.

DM: Well, that’s that’s the only thing I’m suggesting it’s not anything I would labor over but as we think about Jefferson in all of the ways he’s actually trying to conceal so much about the beastly inhuman, uh, [13:30] monstrosity that was slavery. I mean that the lens to which he’s going all the time not just in his writing, in the architecture to conceal the workings of this design and these experiments that, uh, whatever one has to work so hard to contain, is gonna erupt. I hesitate to incorporate Freud here and I don’t worship at his shrine, but [14:00] he got some things right. The repressed will return.

Monticello's Design and Hiding the Labor of Enslaved Peoples

JP: That’s for sure and on that topic, um, not Freud but of concealing. I wanted to pick up on a conversation you were kind of alluding to just a moment ago about Jefferson’s architecture, you know his contributions and in the classical sense, um, but also the way that he hides labor, he hides the means of production and you know in terms of being a lesson in architecture, um, Monticello more than other [14:30] places. I mean we’re sitting on the top of the mountain and I don’t see much. I wonder if you could maybe meditate on that a bit and then also talk about the place we are now in kind of what we can see and what we can’t see.

NB: Sure. So we’re sitting on the West Lawn and you cannot see Mulberry Row from here. Um, and I think for a lot of people under first examination, it would seem that perhaps Jefferson is trying to hide the labor of enslaved people but the reality of 18th and 19th century living is that you can’t hide the labor of [15:00] enslaved people. They’re doing everything. they are everywhere on the mountain top. They’re in the house, they are on Mulberry Row, they’re out in the fields and mind you, this is a large plantation. Monticello sits at the center of a 5,000 acre plantation. At any given time, there are 120 to 140 enslaved people here. It is a large plantation and the activity of the enslaved community is everywhere. Uh, so in the architecture, I would say Jefferson is not necessarily hiding but minimizing the presence of enslaved people [15:30] through techniques like, uh locating the service activities things like the kitchen, the laundry, the deli. I mean, the deli, haha. The dairy, uh, the kitchen, the laundry, the dairy is putting those in the wings that are underground here. So, what you see here are just the tops of these terraces, but there are work spaces below those railings that are built into the side of the mountain top and there are passageways from those south wings that lead to the house. So, as an enslaved person, say you are James [16:00] Hemings or Edith Fossett and you’ve prepared a meal in the kitchen. Uh, you can take that through that subterranean service passage under the house and up into the dining room. And in the dining room, there’s a dumbwaiter so you can set that food on the dumbwaiter and leave. It minimizes the amount of enslaved people that have to be serving a meal and I would say that’s really the core of Jefferson’s architectural design. He uses the same techniques at the University of Virginia. If you look at [16:30] The Pavilions on the Lawn, they’re the center of his Academical Village and as much as he wanted to minimize students bringing their own enslaved people, I think there was some awareness that professors and students would do that anyway. So, you have the spaces under the pavilions that became workspaces and that shift to either allow more functionality or to allow more light. The designs are very thoughtful in that respect to how they organize work. So, here at Monticello, there’s a great big spatialized [17:00] landscape of labor. So, you have the house where you have more domestic workers, people who are taking care of the china, people who are cleaning the house. Priscilla Hemings who would have been the nursemaid, who would have been working in the nursery on the third floor. And then you have your spaces that I just described that are out in the wings underground and then the next level is Mulberry Row. And Mulberry Row is really the industrial hub. That’s where things are converted from the raw materials collected out in the field into objects. So, that’s where your carpenter [17:30] shop, your joinery, the tinsmith, the metalsmith, those kind of things are taking place and then at distance you have the quarter farms and that’s really where the agricultural production is taking place. So, there is a really specialized hierarchy of labor.

JP: Um, just a quick follow-up. I mean, so you’re suggesting and I might have just misunderstood a little bit but you’re suggesting that you know, the function of the dumbwaiters in these underground passages were more about efficiency or is there an element too of Jefferson [18:00] not wanting to see or be seen particularly when he’s entertaining guests of them not wanting to see the enslaved workforce or is that kind of a misnomer?

Thomas Jefferson's Relationship with Sally Hemings is contentious as early as 1802.

NB: I’m suggesting both. Uh, there’s a lot of efficiency happening here. There’s a lot of mechanization of work, uh, which is perhaps a different, is different than a lot of plantations actually. When you look at most plantations where we’re sitting would probably be where the outbuildings are. And instead this is a garden. This is a reflective space, a private space for the family [18:30] and the work is not visible here. It is located down on Mulberry Row. Uh, so what Jefferson is doing is basically turning this into a big machine. But the second part of that is that when he’s entertaining because he is very cognizant of the fact that people are visiting. I think his granddaughters write in their diaries that people used to just drive up to Monticello, press their face against glass and hope to be invited in. So, there were lots of times that people would just be up here and there’d be large dinner parties. And for those events [19:00] he is minimizing the presence of enslaved people, especially when it becomes kind of contentious and what I’m speaking of is like early 1800s when he’s running for political office people start noticing that there are a lot of lighter-skinned enslaved people here at Monticello and that uh, they are describing those people to look like Thomas Jefferson, right? So, it serves him to keep fewer people around that dinner table if you go inside.

JP: Wow, can you just I mean like what?

NB: Yeah, you know so Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings [19:30] is contentious as early as 1802. James Callender smears him basically in a newspaper and he says, you know, he has children with, as Callender described her “Black Sal” or uh, “Dusky Sally” and uh, the kids look just like Thomas Jefferson and of course, they’re using that against him as a political tool, but they’re also calling out a relationship with an enslaved woman.

JP: Which at the time was common so who needs DNA evidence? Right?

NB: Well, I think the DNA evidence really gave credence [20:00] to the oral history of these families. I mean these enslaved families never forgot their oral history and they carried that through 200 years. Um, but I think what was overlooked because they were African-Americans, because they had been enslaved, historians were not taking their oral histories Seriously. and one of the arguments that uh, Sally Hemings scholar, Annette Gordon-Reed, makes is that for all this time, they intentionally overlooked the narratives of the enslaved community because there were lots of stereotypes [20:30] and misconceptions about African-American intelligence about the reliability of the information from their oral history. So, uh, the DNA really backed that up, but honestly, uh these families never doubted their connection to Thomas Jefferson.

DNA Evidence

DM: It’s so interesting to think about the DNA. This is gonna be a pretty long preamble. So, bear with me, uh, it’s interesting to think about the DNA because when it is convenient for people who worship at the shrine of science to say, well, we don’t trust oral history because [21:00] we can’t prove it, that we need the unimpeachable evidence that science provides. Now I was at uh, Kenwood the afternoon the announcement was made that, um, by Dr. Foster. now, Dr. Foster was this retired pathologist this avuncular man, and he made the very modest statement that if the man reported to be Thomas Jefferson’s father was in fact [21:30] his father, then we can ascertain, the DNA can ascertain for us that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’s children. So, this was a completely modest proposition. Now there were people that afternoon prepared to introduce into the conversation the speculation well that perhaps Thomas Jefferson’s father was not his father. That’s so unimaginable, was it, that that science [22:00] had now verified this for us? All right. So, there’s this there is that that when it is convenient to incorporate science into the conversation, let’s have science but when science gives you what you think you must have, then science can be suddenly questioned or at least we can demure a bit. If not reject science we can say well maybe the man reported to be his daddy was not his daddy [22:30]. As black people, say mama’s baby, papa’s maybe. I guess I don’t really want to know.

NB: Right. Well and then look at the other theories that have arisen since the DNA testing, uh, most of the people who continue to deny Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’s children like to offer alternatives. Well clearly it was his brother. Clearly because now it has to be another male Jefferson. And at first it was oh it was the Carr nephews. Well when the DNA said no, there’s no possibility then it’s like, oh we have to find [23:00] somebody else who who it could be and people are jumping through hoops to find other theories, but basically if you compare the DNA, the oral history, all of the evidence of who was here at Monticello and who was not nine months before all of Sally Hemings’s children. It could not have been anyone but Thomas Jefferson.

JP: Yeah. Um, yeah, that’s incredible. So, uh, I have a brief follow-up because we’re here and, you know, you hear some car sounds, you hear some other sounds [23:30] and, um, just a brief way of closing the loop on the architectural conversation. Um sound uh, that was one thing that you know, because we always talk about sight lines, but what might Jefferson and the people visiting Monticello hear on an average day? I mean, uh, you’re up in an elevated space, could they hear, um Mulberry Row? The activity?

NB: Oh absolutely. 18th century living was notoriously disgusting. Like there was nothing pleasant about being [24:00] in eighteenth-century, Virginia and you’re at the top of a mountain, Jefferson and his family and the enslaved community always struggled with water issues here. So, you would have heard lots of carts probably from people going down to the Rivanna River and bringing water back up. Uh, you would have heard chopping wood. Uh, we’re not too far from where the coal sheds are. They would have been just down the hill behind us. So, you would have heard that. You would have smelled smoke, you would have, there would have been animals here, lots of chickens on Mulberry Row. Uh, so you would have heard some clucking [24:30] um, and you would have heard work, honestly. I mean, uh, you heard activities from the kitchen. Um, I’m not good at describing these kind of sonic presences here, but it would have been a very noisy place.

JP: Yeah. So, the claim that in some ways Jefferson was trying to hide labor, it’s like how much can you really hide?

NB: Right? How much can you really hide? The truth is not much, uh the house that you see now is extremely curated but it never would have been this clean. It never would have been this pretty. There was certainly a lot going on here. [25:00]

Complicating Hemings and Jefferson: Rape, Agency, and Consent

DM: Back to the question of Sally Hemings, Jefferson, the children, rape, trying to segue into the exhibition, uh, and perhaps by way of Annette Gordon-Reed. Uh, obviously she’s done the world a great service since she did these books on Jefferson and Hemings and she’s inclined to claim for that relationship, [25:30] a dimension that other historians and lay people are not. In other words, She seems not to want to say categorically nothing could have obtained between Jefferson and Hemings. Uh, that was anything but reducible to rape, to exploitation, uh, brutality, etc. She seems not to want to go that far. [26:00] She seems to want more inclined to want to say something could have passed between these people despite what we know about consent and such. Where… talk to us a little bit about that.

NB: Sure. Yeah, in Annette’s work, she puts out the possibility that it could have been a romantic relationship and I think that uh, her approach there is that if we just call it rape, [26:30] then we remove any possibility that Sally Hemings had any agency in the relationship. Uh, we can all imagine even in contemporary America, situations where a relationship may have been consensual and then wasn’t or started as rape and then became consensual. So, there’s a spectrum of where this relationship could have fallen, but I think the things that are critical to point out about the relationship, the sexual relationship at least, between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is that there is a gross [27:00] power imbalance. Uh, he is 30 years her senior, he’s her owner, she does not have the ability or the power to say no in this situation. Um, she is second generation biracial so that means her mother had children by a white man and her grandmother did the same. Uh, so there are lots of things that are at play. Uh, this could have been something or a strategy for her to achieve more privilege for her children, right? [27:30] Uh, we know from her son Madison that in negotiating with Thomas Jefferson, she negotiated extraordinary privilege for herself and freedom for their four children who survived. So, they have six children together; two die as infants and four live to be adult and they’re all freed. They are the only nuclear family at Monticello for that to happen. Uh, so we can’t rule out the possibility that Sally Hemings, even at the young age of 16, had the foresight to negotiate some power in the situation for herself, which is I think why [28:00] we have to give it, uh space to not just be rape and to not just be consent. Perhaps there is more there.

JP: Yeah, um just a brief clarifying questions about the freeing uh, Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ children. Um, we spoke with Mia Bay a few weeks ago, the historian, and um, she suggested that um, and it’s been quite some years but since she’s done this research, so it was, you know, very tentative at best, but she suggested [28:30] that you know, Jefferson didn’t free them until they turned 21 and so, um making the the implication that like maybe they had earned their value quote-unquote in that system. And so just to complicate maybe the benevolence of freeing Sally Hemings’ children? I wonder if you can just clarify that for us just so that we have another perspective on that.

Hemings descendants passing for white in VA

NB: Right, and I think the easiest way to do that is to say he owned 607 people and in his lifetime he only freed 10. Um, [29:00] I think that removes any benevolent factor of someone being able to work hard enough to earn their freedom. He freed Sally Hemings’ children because they made an agreement and as Madison says he upheld that; a verbal agreement with an enslaved woman. He does the same with her older brother who he also freed because James Hemings while in Paris negotiated his own freedom at the sake of his brother, which is an interesting family dynamic but, um, you know, I think we have to look at Jefferson’s racial beliefs to really get to the core [29:30] of understanding what happened with his children. Uh, he writes in Notes on the State of Virginia and it’s law at the time basically that anyone who is 7/8ths white is white. And his children with Sally Hemings are 7/8ths white. They are light enough to pass. So, he allows Beverly and Harriet the two oldest, uh, Beverly being his oldest son and Harriet being their only daughter together, uh frees them and they pass into white society and we never hear from them again. Um, when he dies, Eston [30:00] and Madison are freed in the will and they go to live in Charlottesville where in 1830 they’re both listed as free white along with their mother Sally Hemings, which is interesting. They’re listed as free white, but then Virginia gets very strict after the Nat Turner rebellion, and they’re required to register for free and when they do so they register as black and they’re required to leave the state of Virginia.

So, they move to Southern Ohio and from there one of them chooses to remain African-American and that’s Madison and his brother Eston decides [30:30] to move one more time to Wisconsin changes his name from Eston Hemings to E.H. Jefferson and his descendants go on believing that they are Irish immigrants, which is a really interesting story. that’s passed down in the oral history. So, um, it’s complicated but I think the core of their racial identity is really why Jefferson frees them.

JP: That’s fascinating.

DM: Fascinating, enlightening in the whole range of other things we could add here. [31:00] Uh, I’m not going to keep sticking to this one note but to go back just once more to the idea of Sally Hemings and what power and agency she may or may not have had. As a literary scholar, of course, I’m inclined to have many references to literature and especially to the literature of enslaved people. So, I think when I think about Sally Hemings, about Harriet Jacobs [31:30] for example and Harriet Jacobs while she fends herself against the unwanted sexual aggressions of her owner, Dr. Flint, uh, she does enter willingly into a relationship with uh, another white plantation owner. He’s not her owner, um, but he is a part of the system and she talks about it explicitly as a choice on her part. [32:00] It is better to give oneself is what she’s saying in essence. I’m paraphrasing her, uh, than, you know, in other words to choose your own love object then to have somebody force himself upon you. So, she and her children are also vulnerable to and victims of the system, but she enters into that, uh consciously, willingly. Uh, she too is young and I think in addition to thinking [32:30] about race and racial identity in this conversation, we also have to think about for the historical record the fact that separate stages of childhood that we honor and assume at our historical moment did not obtain in this era so that childhood as this period of a separate stage, a separate and protected stage of development, is fairly late in human history [33:00] and is not obtaining people at the age of 14 could be married at the time. This is not to erase any of the complications you have introduced into the conversation but to say that this is so bedeviling because we have to consider all of these issues in space and time.

Complicating Hemings through the perspective of childhood

NB: Right, Exactly. And I think that’s a really good point you make because I actually should have mentioned what the age of consent in Virginia was at that time and it’s 10. It’s 10 years old. Um, [33:30] Sally Hemings is not considered a child at 16. In fact many white women at the time are not considered children either. Uh, so this is really as a scholar who’s here currently on fellowship, her name is Montia Gardner. She’s been doing some research on reproductive resistance of enslaved women and she suggests that it’s a gender issue and not a racial one. It really is that Sally Hemings is considered a woman by the time she’s 16, and some more background on what children are doing here. I mean by the age of five you have a job [34:00] and from 5 to 10, you’re doing things like babysitting other children, carrying water to people who are working. This is not a world where you get to hold onto childhood until you’re 18. It’s just not how that was. And I think um, you know, Deborah is right to point out that you don’t have a childhood in the modern sense.

Challenges of creating the Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello

JP: Yeah, and so the exhibit I mean what were some challenges in making this exhibit? I mean you point out this really rich actual amount of historical detail about [34:30] the Hemings family, but I know that Deborah’s pointed out that there’s no sort of authoritative image of Sally Hemings herself and so I don’t know. I wonder if you can maybe just speak a bit about the unique challenges of mounting this exhibit.

NB: Right, you know, in working on this exhibit one of the first things we became aware of is that while Sally Hemings has always been one of the most famous or one of the most recognizable enslaved women in the U.S. by her story, we actually don’t know a ton about her private life. Uh, we don’t have any [35:00] photographs of her. Uh, so we weren’t willing to make leaps in the exhibit about her complexion or about how straight is “long, straight, dark hair?” Uh, how long is long hair? Um, she’s described as being a very handsome which is pretty but like what do those features mean? So, rather than guess at what she looked like we decided to represent her the same way that we were going to represent Martha. If we’re going to do Martha Jefferson, then uh and in her space put a dress and give her a [35:30] physical presence then we had to do the same for Sally Hemings. Um, so that was our first decision is she has to have a presence in the room. Uh, the second thing is putting her voice there and because we don’t have any writings from her and we assumed that perhaps she was literate, her brother was literate in both French and English. Um, you know, we’re making a little bit of a leap, but there are no papers from her. You know the nature of slavery is that there are rarely our papers from enslaved people. [36:00] So, uh, since we didn’t have her words the closest we could get was having her son Madison and having his testimony that he gave to a newspaper in Southern Ohio in 1873. Um, fortunately for us we were working with a firm out of Canada and they saw almost immediately that you could take Madison Hemings words and turn it into poetry. So, that’s what we decided to do in this space to make it as beautiful as possible and to allow people to have a most [36:30] intimate conversation with Sally Hemings and we did that with Madison’s words. So, the room itself is very simple. There’s no furniture we decided because there is the cook’s room in the same part of the house that you could already see what a slave quarter would have looked like so there was no need to reproduce another period room where we put a bed, furniture, and textiles there was no need for all that. So, the room is very simple you walk in and then there’s a multimedia presentation and that’s [37:00] narrated exclusively by Madison with some background sounds to illuminate the activities.

JP: Yeah. Um, it looks like it’s starting to maybe drizzle which should be Okay, as long as it doesn’t start pouring down. um, the the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences talks about needing to have the University of Virginia be a university of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And so, I wonder if you can either speak on that [37:30] or are meditate on what sort of a Monticello by or for Sally Hemings may look like?

NB: you know, I think Monticello and the University of Virginia are both grappling with the same issue. And in many ways the city of Charlottesville after the August 12th white supremacist rally in 2017. Um, everyone has come up with an idea of the American founding and for a lot of people, uh, the founding is predominantly male and white. And while the people who are framing early [38:00] America are male and white and for the most part wealthy, uh, there are millions of other people here, most of them enslaved. Um, there are also Native Americans. This land that we are on is stolen so there are lots of layers to this history and we would be telling an incomplete story if you came here and you got a story about Thomas Jefferson, one dead white guy on a plantation of hundreds of other people. [38:30] Uh, that wouldn’t do it justice and it’s not enough just to talk about the enslaved community either because Jefferson was here and his family was here. Uh, so you have to talk about the women, you have to talk about the children, you have to talk about, uh, the hired workman who were here who were free white workman who lived in close proximity to enslaved people; you have to talk about that dynamic as well. Because that cuts at every subsection of the American population. That is our American story. That is something we can all see ourselves in. And as Monticello is telling the story we’re looking for a story that all Americans [39:00] can take in and can identify where they fit into this story. It also can’t be one that’s exclusively sad. It can’t be slavery was horrible all the time because it was, slavery was a terrible. It was demeaning it dehumanized people. Um, but it also um, you know slavery was the foundation of our new country and this is going to sound really harsh but America would have never become the world power that it is without the institution of slavery [39:30] and that is not glorify slavery, but it’s to acknowledge that it is the economic base of early America and we can’t tell a story about a president, about someone who served in political power who went abroad and represented this country without talking about the institution of slavery and the people who were here.

JP: Wonderful. Um, so yeah I wonder if we start maybe wandering to uh, you know to the enclosure but yeah, I mean, this is just a wonderful conversation.

DM: Really, I mean just so so rich, I’m just wondering if we get out of the rain. [40:00] You’re still free for lunch?

NB: Yeah. I’m still free for lunch. Uh, I can do lunch until two o’clock.

JP: Okay, great, great. Well, yeah we can kind of wander and I’m fine to kind of..

DM: And maybe would you mind if we turn the recorder on again because it’s just wonderfully rich..

NB: Yeah, no that’s fine.

JP: And I can kind of keep it, you know, yeah rolling a little bit.

DM: Yes, just amazing, exactly what we’re after here.

JP: Yeah. And luckily it’s not too much. [40:30]

DM: But really thinking about, uh, all exhibitions are involved in leaps of interpretation and leaps of imagination. Uh, but I can imagine people taking exception to the kind of exhibition you have mounted and not then having the generosity of spirit or for that matter [41:00], uh, the wealth of knowledge to say well all exhibitions involve interpretive leaps, right choices, certain choices, avoid other choices. Uh, and so how would you defend your exhibition against the skeptics unable to have that kind of intellectual elasticity?

NB: You know, [41:30] I don’t know that we necessarily have to defend it. Uh, we’ve presented all of the information outside of the room on text panels. And the reality of museum exhibitions is that not everybody’s going to like it. And for people who are not ready for these stories perhaps this is too bold of a statement, to give her a space, to give her story of space, to do something like you know give her that physical presence and to use [42:00] Madison’s memoir. A lot of people will say, “Well that’s not fact, that’s oral history. That’s the way he remembered it.” Well, we’re able to take Thomas Jefferson’s words and say that that’s fact. We’re happy to use his family’s words and say that that’s fact. It’s really only when it comes to these African-American perspectives where people are less willing to be generous in the information that they can conceive. So, yeah. [42:30]

JP: Pick a souvenir?

DM: Well, I don’t recognize this plant. I’m a gardener, too.

NB: Oh, they normally have plates that say what they are.

DM: Oh good and I wanted to take a picture, but I didn’t want to interrupt the… and uh..

NB: Joseph’s Coat Amaranths Tri-color.

DM: Joseph’s Coat.

NB: 1786.

DM: Because I yes, it obviously thrives here. Oh good, James, get it. Because I want this in my garden. [43:00] I don’t recognize it and I recognize every other plant along this this uh, path but I just didn’t recognize it.

(Conversation about plants)

Now when I said defend, I meant that kind of only in the loosest sense because I would agree with you that it does not need defending but that people will be prepared to accept, as you say, any other leaps of imagination [43:30] or any other representations of historical reality, right? If the descendants of Jefferson, if their words can be accepted and if they have a certain amount or provide historical record of a certain amount of veracity, why can’t, exactly. Yeah, I would completely agree and I think we’re bringing our students interns here on Tuesday [44:00] to see the exhibition. But I think one of the things we will definitely want to stress with them is that um, this is thinking of museums, we shouldn’t limit our thoughts to hard fact, is or isn’t.

NB: Sometimes you have to draw from the gray space. Oh, yeah, I mean you need so much about her [unintelligible] and you have to [44:30] quantify it in some way to put it into an exhibit.

DM: Exactly.

NB: And I think some of the things are, in my opinion, brilliant.

DM: I think the very idea of the exhibition is brilliant.

NB: Yeah, and I think you know the Canadian designers were excellent for seeing that early on. And for bringing us along with it.

DM: How did you settle on them? How did you settle on actually inviting people in to help you imagine the exhibition

NB: We kind of did it like you would do any process; [45:00]put out a call essentially. We sought out designers who we thought would have the right type of background, people who worked in theatre. We knew we wanted to do something more um involved. So, we went with a designer who had a lot of theater design and set design experience. And they ended up being the best pick.

DM: And what’s so interesting about that is we do not think about museological work [45:30] as in any way in the universe [unintelligible] in consultation with people whose domain is performance.

NB: Exactly, and for people outside of the U.S. who had like no preconceived Notions of American slavery, right? [46:00] Which is great because they saw the voids that most of our average visitors have because they don’t study this all the time.

Not so bad? Reconciling the beauty of Monticello with its history of violence

DM: Do you see, and what I love about that oh look at this. Look at this.

NB: This makes my job hard.

JP: What do you mean?

NB: This view is so pretty. Monticello is gorgeous, even though it’s a place where a lot of people experienced violence and inequality and just like a lot of pain. Uh, even Jefferson’s family. I mean his wife lost a couple children, She died in childbirth [46:30] after their sixth. I mean, there’s a lot of uh, very difficult emotions here and yet people come inevitably and they get this great view to the east they’re like, oh it’s not that bad, which is something we actually have to fight. We put a sign in one of the reconstructed quarters that says not so bad question mark, because we had a lot of people going in there and saying, “Oh this is kind of nice, it’s not that bad.” Uh, so we had to remind them that it you know, people could be sold and that’s the reality. [47:00]

DM: I like that you have adjusted the signage to reflect responses from the public. I find that in itself, because the idea that even the commitment to reinterpreting this history can itself continue to evolve, can continue to remain dynamic. It’s never frozen.

NB: And we’re thankful for that, right? I mean the interpretation here 25 years ago is nowhere what you get today, right?

DM: Nowhere near. [47:30] But on that question of not so bad, I’m reminded of uh, I don’t know if you were attended the second, um universities and slavery conference last October, but I’ve been asked to chair the panel and I had some ambivalence about joining the panel which featured um heads of institutions like Monticello, the person for Montpelier was there, and/or college presidents, who were all confronting their [48:00] slave pasts and that they had all chosen to highlight Henry the bell ringer or the Lemon Project at William and Mary and I said, well, what if we imagine as we are retelling this history or what if we had to consider that we may be contributing to sanitizing this history that if Henry got up every morning no matter what and faithfully rang the bell, why can’t we also find the space, even if we don’t have the documentary [48:30] evidence in the form of a figure like Henry the bell ringer or Lemon, that this was a brutal institution and people were undone by this institution? And so even in trying to imagine it in a way or reimagine it by saying well, despite it all whether you intend that or not, well you focus on the people who rang the bell every day, what you are saying inadvertently [49:00] is it wasn’t so bad. So, when I did say that the person from Monticello who was representing Monticello did say that they had had to consider that and I’m now glad to see that he did it. Because otherwise you do inadvertently create the sense that people endure, people survive. And that’s important. That’s an important part of the narrative, but it’s not the only part of the narrative so that even as we [49:30] say to go back to your earlier and very important point there was joy, there was tragedy, pain, there was joy, there was um, people sustaining family relations to the extent that they could uh, and that holding these things together simultaneously, uh is so important, uh, but for me, refusing to let slavery be incorporated into [50:00] a general tendency in this country to see everything in progressivist terms. We are getting better and better and better and better. I think it should be possible to say there was some people who did not survive this institution. Some people were undone by this institution and that undone-ness, they bequeathed to the generations that came after them and yes, we have to acknowledge that at the same time.

Limitations of a progressivist view of history

NB: I think for us and you’re pointing to the danger of having a singular narrative, [50:30] of having a history that goes from bad to better to best and we’re not there. We’ve never been that country and that’s kind of like the failure of the American Dream. It’s the failure of American exceptionalism. That we can never actually be a perfect country and we never have been and that our history instead of being this arc that goes from low to high is actually been more kind of hilly, you know, uh, uh, it’s more cyclical than we previously [51:00] thought.

DM: And the valleys have been low. And we’re in pretty low valley right now.

NB: And within those stories there are different highs and lows for each moment, but like even telling the story of James Hemings, it’s like yes, he was an exceptional, had an exceptional life; traveled to Paris, he was more or better traveled than most white Americans at the time. He went to Paris twice. We think he went there after he gained his freedom. He gained his freedom and he navigated this space from free to enslaved to free again. Um, but ultimately he committed [51:30] suicide and we have to acknowledge that he lived in a country that was not free and he couldn’t be free and his family couldn’t be free and that resulted in him taking his own life. Um, and these are the realities of slavery. So, how do we bring back something that can never be returned to a place? Obviously, we’re not going to take the road of doing reenactments of slavery, of people being beaten, people being punished, of people having everything taken from them, [52:00] having their children sold, we’re never going to recreate that atmosphere here, but we do have to complicate it for our visitor who often only thinks of the carceral punishment and not the psychological, not the type of trauma that is intergenerational, not the type of trauma that has survived to the present. You know? I may never know where my ancestors lived and worked uh fortunately for the families here, we had a great deal of records and we can give that back to them and we have a responsibility to do so, um, but it is hard. It’s challenging to do [52:30] both at the same time.

DM: Speaking of reenactments. I mean, I could just talk to you forever and ever and ever. Speaking of reenactments, what do you think of those environments that do go that route and more specific than that, what do you think of the Slave Dwelling Project? I think that’s the term where people are sleeping out, what do you make of that as a way of responding to the historical past?

NB: You know, I think there’s value in both of those experiences. I don’t know that Monticello will ever be the setting [53:00] uh, where we do reenactments. We do have people come during the Heritage Harvest Festival. We have storytellers along while Mulberry Row, We have basket weavers, people who are showing skills that enslaved people had – we have cooking demonstrations. But Monticello is just not an institution where we do costumed interpretation, and I don’t think there’s anything really negative about that. I think if it’s done, well, it’s a good way for people to be immersed in a time and period that they may not understand. [53:30] The Slave Dwelling Project though I think opens a new realm for connecting with the history. I don’t know if I’m as open to it outside of the descendant community as we’ve only done it with descendants here and what’s been special is that because we have so many good records. I can put the Hemings family in the Hemings cabin. I can put descendants of Isaac Granger in the storehouse for iron where he was a blacksmith. I can put um, the Hearn and Fossett descendants in the kitchen and they’re able to really spend time here when it’s quiet [54:00], when there are no visitors, when there’s no one else here, no lighting, and connect with their ancestors in that way and for some people that’s really valuable. It’s been really restorative for some. There are descendants of the Gillette family in particular who have mentioned having a lot of resentment and having a lot of anger and distrust for this institution and for Thomas Jefferson who after this Slave Dwelling Project feel more connected with their ancestors, feel more pride and I think that is a beneficial tool. [54:30]

NB: Very nuanced response. Is it time?

JP: Oh, yeah, we should be mindful of the time that you have.

NB: Yeah it’s 11:55.

JP: It’s almost 12.

DM: Yeah… Should… The tour is going to start at 12 and then go to lunch?

JP: Yeah, I think that’d be great.

NB: Do you want to maybe walk down and see the “Not so bad?” There’s gonna be a slavery tour starting in five minutes, but you may want to catch some audio from that.

DM: I’m so glad to hear you say that and to have the context for his remarks, I’m forgetting his name. Is there a Gary?

NB: Yes, Gary Sandling. [55:00] He’s our VP of education.

DM: Yeah, that’s who it was because that was his response to my question. That we cannot just simply say despite it all people managed because some people did not.

NB: Yeah, some people didn’t survive.

DM: No, they did not, they did not.

NB: And some people are still struggling.

DM: Right!

NB: You know, that’s like there is a lot of hurt that took place in the era of slavery that [55:30] has not been resolved.

DM: That this is intergenerational that um, I’ve been, well not recently but once did some work with these two anthropologists. Um, um, the Kleinmans Arthur and unfortunately not remembering her name, but the work is called “How Bodies Remember,” uh, and that what people pass on to each other bodily, psychically, from generation to generation, uh, his subjects [56:00] are the descendants of the Chinese Revolution, but the insights that or the questions he raised in the insights he provides I think are useful for us to consider when thinking about slavery, uh that this, what this institution did and was lives within us in ways that we don’t know, some ways we do know, um, and we have to keep acknowledging that [56:30] because institutions, uh, Monticello, the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Brown. You name it, they’re in the business of preserving an image of themselves and that for many of them the so-called return to considering their slave past, uh has to be conducted within the context of their overarching commitment.

NB: Oh, why don’t we wait while people step out.

DM: Their overarching commitment to preserve constructing [57:00] and preserving an image of themselves exactly as they wish to be seen.

NB: Right, exactly. And you know what? I don’t know if you were here for uh, June 16th when we opened the new exhibit.

DM: No, I was at a conference.

NB: Okay, great. Well, so that day we had a panel in which the president of the Ford Foundation was here, Darren Walker. And he had this fantastic quote about philanthropy, but I think it also relates to um, acknowledging our painful history, our contested past [57:30]. Uh, he said, it’s not about what you’re giving back, it’s about what you’re willing to give up and I think for these institutions, they really have to re-evaluate what what we’re doing. Um, it’s not enough just to talk about black people who were here. You have to really be able to shake up the interpretation and you have to give up your comfort level with talking about decorative arts and having a singular narrative about Thomas Jefferson. You have to really be willing to potentially [58:00] lose donors to lose, uh, visitors you have to really uh, take some risks with telling the story because not everyone’s ready for it. But it’s a conversation that needs to happen in our country if we ever hope to move forward.

DM: Yeah, that is exactly the point to be made. I’ve said again and again even around how we’re responding to August 11 and 12 knowing as important as it is to know the roots of the [58:30] University of Virginia and the town of Charlottesville in white supremacy, simply knowing is not enough. that that knowing then has to be translated into something much more disruptive. We don’t know for the sake of knowing, we know for the sake of doing better.

NB: And you know here we’re rethinking our tours we’re trying to link our main house tour experience with the slavery tour, which you’re seeing for our listeners, we’re standing outside of the reconstructed Hemings quarter and there’s a large tour group gathering. [59:00] We run these slavery tours every 30 minutes from 10:00 to 4:00. Um, and the groups are getting bigger and bigger which is great. But we’d like to make these one experience.

JP: So, you’re talking about the principle of splitting, there’s a house tour and a separate slavery tour.

NB: Currently, there’s a house tour and then you can opt into taking the slavery tour and we’re working on a way to not make that optional, to make it a main part of our experience.

DM: Because otherwise you do create [59:30] the sense that these are separable, that what are inseparable experiences can be separated because obviously people not wanting to confront the quote-unquote painful past will opt out.

(Moving for tour group)

DM: So, where would we see the sign.

NB: Just left through the door. [1:00:00]

The role of family during slavery

(Entering the slave cabin) [1:00:30]

JP: Can you maybe tell us what we’re looking at here?

NB: Sure. So, we’re standing inside of the Hemings cabin, which we’ve interpreted for John and Priscilla Hemings and we’re looking at that “Not so bad?” plaque that I mentioned earlier. Uh, so this cabin is about 10 by 14. It’s a really nice restoration or recreation of what would have been here. It’s a log building, there’s a loft upstairs. We’re standing on a dirt floor, [1:01:00] but it’s pretty clean because it’s a restoration. Um, actually it’s a recreation it was not here to restore. Um, so it’s necessarily overbuilt and probably a lot nicer materially than a slave quarter would have been. Now, we restored this using the same methods, same construction, practice, same types of trees. Um, but again, it’s a museum and we clean things daily because we have to prepare for all these visitors to see it. Um, so it is nicer [1:01:30] than probably enslaved people would have known so we had to put a sign here that basically addresses that says that enslaved people as property could always be sold and separated and the one thing they had was their families. That is the ultimate tool for controlling enslaved people is the threat of selling away their children or even any family member, really.

JP: You just reminded me and this maybe can be our final question. But you just reminded me of kind of a critical question that I’ve had [1:02:00] in the past and it’s come up in past interviews and maybe two-part questions. I’ll start with the first one which is if you can maybe talk a little bit about how Jefferson used the family structure on the plantation. So, you mentioned like keeping the Hemings family together more or less but maybe meditating on that a bit as Jefferson as sort of the father of Monticello or like in this weird, so if you can comment on that and then I’ll do my follow-up.

NB: Yes, so slavery is a very patriarchal institution. Uh, it’s one where a lot of slave owners rationalized [1:02:30] their participation in what was a very cruel and violent institution and we’ll step over here so we don’t get as much sound from outside but was a very cruel, violent institution and corrected people. Uh, they justified it by saying that uh, you couldn’t free these enslaved Africans who were not considered people because they couldn’t take care of themselves because they were like children. So, it’s a very patriarchal way to think of your role in society. So, [1:03:00] Jefferson as father of Monticello to everyone here and he’s very exacting even with his own white family members. Like his daughters have to live their lives based on a schedule that he said, you know, they have to spend a certain amount of time practicing the piano practicing the violin, studying different topics because he said so. And for the enslaved people that means they have to work sunup to sundown because he said so uh, so that is a very, um, I don’t know, it’s interesting to consider. But [1:03:30] then when you think about the way that he thinks about enslaved families, I mean, he writes that enslaved people aren’t capable of having these feelings, but then also recognizes that they are and uses that to control, its leverage basically, um, when Monticello first became a plantation, when he first builds this property and this is through the 1760s-1770s, enslaved people were living in more barracks style housing slightly larger than the building we’re in. All men would have lived together, all women. But then as plantation society [1:04:00] is becoming more established there’s a there’s really good book actually called Advice Among Masters. So, slaveholders start talking to each other and they’re like, hmm let’s set a list of best practices and basically they realize that enslaved people really value their families and the best way to incentivize them to work harder is to keep the families together, but that also means that the worst punishment is to break up a family and to sell someone. And so what that looks like is individual [1:04:30] housing for family units. Um, you know, these houses especially these log buildings moved with the work, not along Mulberry Row but certainly out of the quarter fields, uh quarter farms. So, at the quarter farms, they move based on where the harvest is going, but the family stays together for the most part. Um, there are instances where children are sent to Poplar Forest or to uh, sent us gifts as dowry to other members of the Randolph family. Um, so there are instances [1:05:00] where people are separated but you know the method that he’s using to manage this plantation is to keep families together.

Family separation as a tool of control

JP: And then there’s that moment, so just to follow up, so keeping families together is sort of a way of making them more productive laborers? Is that fair to say?

NB: Yeah, that’s what he’s hoping.

JP: And there’s a moment. Um, I guess upon I guess was it Isaac Jefferson recounting the moment of selling off families. I wonder if you can talk about that briefly [1:05:30] and that might have been you can correct me if I’m wrong but following Jefferson’s death?

NB: That’s after Jefferson’s death, yes. So, after Jefferson dies, he dies deeply in debt. His son-in-law becomes the executor, sorry, his grandson becomes the executor of his will, um, and he’s tasked with selling everybody. So, in 1827, 130 people are offered for sale and for Isaac, I believe Madison and Israel both mentioned in their memoirs, this is a moment of great uncertainty for these families because they’re not sure whether they get to stay together. [1:06:00] And for many of them, they don’t. They’re purchased by neighbors, they’re purchased by other members of Jefferson’s family, they’re purchased by professors at the University of Virginia. And in many cases, they are separated. And now behind the scenes, uh, some of the enslaved men who are living and working along Mulberry Row and I’m talking your tradesmen, so the carpenters, the joiners, the blacksmiths, people who have a little bit wider network have negotiated purchases to keep their families together. Uh, so that shows that the enslaved community is aware [1:06:30] of this as well and that they are strategizing to keep their families together and that they’re resisting separation, which I think is a really important element.

JP: I’m so glad we got to ask that question.

DM: Yes, I am.

JP: Family separation is really prominent these days.

DM: And to bring this conversation full circle and reiterate what you just said, contrary to what Jefferson is arguing in Query 14, uh, “their griefs are transient,” “they don’t love,” I’m paraphrasing here [1:07:00] to the extent that other humans love that he is clearly aware that there, it is just the opposite and that he can exploit that for his own purposes. And we can see that even in the aftermath of slavery, I have always found it incredibly moving that among the first things newly free people did was to roam the countryside looking for their lost relatives, placing ads in religious newspapers. [1:07:30] They are telling that these are people whose effective lives are deep and rich whose family ties are strong. And have been ruptured and so yeah, we can, now I’m sermonizing.

NB: Can I just add, because I really like, because you can see that people are remembering family members they lost a long time ago. It’s like, you know my mother, I was separated from her at age three, she’s in Virginia. I’m in Louisiana and I’m placing an ad in hopes that someone [1:08:00] has seen her or can reconnect us.

DM: Absolutely. That’s that’s one of the moving parts too about Paul D in Beloved, uh or sick soul in Beloved called in the novel The 30 Mile Man. That the distances people would walk and travel for some connection, however friable, to a loved one. Douglass writes about it in the 1845 narrative. His mother traveling from another [1:08:30] plantation. So, it is indisputable that enslaved people were deeply and emotionally connected to their loved ones and to suggest otherwise.

DM: I had to censor myself.

JP: Yeah, right it’s nonsense.