Melody Barnes

Interviewee:

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

Interview date:

Interview Summary:

Keywords:

Transcription:

Introductions

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You are going to be… I need to understand this. So, you’re the vice president of Monticello?

MELODY BARNES: I’m the Vice Chair of the Board. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Vice Chair of the Board. And then… that… you move from there to the chair of the board… Yes. And so, what is the work of the chair of the board? 

 MELODY BARNES: Well, the board is comprised of a number of really interesting people from all over the country. As you can imagine, a number are Virginians, but there are people from Texas and New York and the rest of the country and the board chair works very closely with Leslie Bowman who is the president of the foundation and her staff and the committee chairs as we think about everything from the grounds, to Jefferson scholarship, to the work that we are doing with the descendants of those who were enslaved at Monticello, thinking about new programming and executing on our strategic plan, which is to focus on what happened on the mountain but also to take that work off the mountain. So, for example, the big exhibit that Monticello did in D.C. a few years ago on the enslaved families and plans to take that abroad as well. 

Jefferson for our times

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. Okay. Yeah, this is exactly in keeping with what we at least one of our objectives and that is to make Jefferson live for our times, really. Which involves really detaching ourselves from the reverence that has surrounded Jefferson but not for purposes of desecration or demonization. We just want to say obviously this was a revolutionary thinker and we want to know what his revolutionary thinking means for us today and how we can make it live again. It’s something of an axiom both from especially for Jefferson scholars that he’s a revolutionary thinker but obviously one who could not bring himself to realize and extend forward those possibilities contained in that vision. So, that’s the long preamble just trying to let you settle in to ask: to what extent does he remain an important figure for us today? And what do we need to do to ensure that he remains an important figure and a touchable figure?  

MELODY BARNES: Right. One, I love that question. And for many reasons, that is the reason why I joined the board at Monticello because I think that Jefferson is critical for us and our understanding of Jefferson for us today because he represents both the challenge and the big thinking that I think is reflective of the country and the bold experiment that is the country. And many of the challenges that we are struggling with today. They are foundational. You could argue that they are part of our DNA, but that might reflect the fact that we think that they’re unchangeable or you could believe that they are…. They sit in the bone structure and we need to try and reshape the bone structure or the architecture of our founding ideals or the execution of our founding ideals. But I think if you look at Jefferson of, you know, the 17… the late 1800s early 1900s, you also then see the same challenges, the same problems, but also the same curiosity that exists in America today. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Oh, I just love that response and as a literary scholar I love the metaphors. The bone structure we’’re accustomed to hearing about the DNA but that it is in the bone structure. And if I heard you correctly then perhaps the bone structure may be more amenable to correction. 

MELODY BARNES: Yes, we can reset the bones. 

 DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So what…  

JAMES PERLA: A facelift maybe? 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So, what would resetting the bones… what would resetting the bone consist?  

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think the first thing that’s critical and again, this is why I think Monticello is important, why the study of Jefferson is important is because we have to understand the truth and all of it. wWe can no longer rely on symbols or myth and fantasy about what America was. And as a result of that, what America is today. My husband always cringes when I use this example, but I say if you really love… When you really love someone you don’t just think they are perfect. They may be perfect for you. But you understand their vulnerabilities, you understand their insecurities, you understand their flaws. So, I think for America, for the understanding of a constitutional republic, of liberal democracy, then the first thing we have to do is to get to the truth because ultimately then if we understand the truth and that history isn’t just something that’s dusty and old, but then we connect the dots through history to today, then we can understand what’s foundational to the challenges we face today and what has to be unearthed. And I also think that’s important because it’s critical to how we relate to one another as individuals, but also how we understand what’s systemic and what’s institutional. 

systematic vs. institutional change

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. So, what is… many people conflate those two: systemic and institutional. So, I’m curious how would you distinguish between them?  

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think about systems change. Well, one I think about institutions as some of the significant institutions that shape our polity. That shape our country, our society. Everything from the institutions of government and how they were formed and the rules and norms that shape and govern them, to the way that we think about our criminal justice system and that in those institutions and education institutions. And then I think about systems as the connective tissue among them. And if we can get into the system or the bloodstream that with our changes and our way forward, then we can start to, at scale, make larger changes and reforms to our democracy.  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: This is all just utterly fascinating I could hear you go on forever. So, I need to be… I need to be aware that we have a limited timeframe. But as I listen to you just now, I’m reminded of the fact that seldom do we acknowledge that the formation of this republic that there were changes going on all the time as this thing was forming and trying to come into being and yet we want to talk about it as if it is this rigid thing… Does not admit of any alteration, but alteration is actually its foundation too.  

MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and it I think it’s part of the beauty that is our constitutional republic and to your point people have to remember and understand this: the founders didn’t think that they were creating something that should be static or that was perfect. And their letters I think between Adams and Jefferson around the framing of the Constitution and the ratification of the Constitution and they were talking about the amendment process and you know and said, “If future generations see that we’ve got something wrong then change it they must.” And that’s what’s incumbent upon us and we’ve done that in significant ways and when it comes to issues of race, obviously the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment, you know, the Nineteenth Amendment that we’ll celebrate next year, the hundredth anniversary with regard to women. But then how we continue to execute on that whether it be through our laws, and policies, our practices, our norms, all of those things require us to think about how we meet the aspirations of the ideal.

to be of both Jefferson and Hemings

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I somehow wish we could be broadcasting this in all directions. Yes. So, to get a little bit then more specific though, I think will be returning to these issues throughout. We are preparing the second in this series of what will be six podcasts six episodes and we’re working on the Sally Hemings one. And when Ian Baucom was a candidate for the Dean of the College, I was on the search committee and he made a statement again and again during the interview process and since that we must become… not just be the University of Jefferson, we must become the University of Sally Hemings. And so, we’ve been asking other people variations on that question. What would that mean? What would that mean to have to consider both these two figures together, to think them together? To think them as inseparable? To think them as… that no accounting would be complete without trying to wrestle with Sally Hemings. However little we know about her as a figure, right? In fact, it is perhaps the fact that we know so little and she is shrouded in mystery and mystification and everybody’s representations, you know. Since if that’s all we have, how do we work with that? To think these two figures together, right?  

MELODY BARNES: I love this question and through the lens of Monticello, we think it’s so important and the opening of what we believed probably was her room. There were two rooms that we narrowed it down to and one of them that we thought okay, this could be it and the exhibit that opened to make sure that when people come to Monticello, yes, it was Jefferson’s home. But Jefferson did not live there alone nor was he able to do the good and the bad that happened there alone that there were over 600 enslaved men, women and children who were there. Sally Hemings being one of them. And A. literally the leveling of that mountain, the building of that house, the keeping and building of the farm, the plantation, all of that was because of all of the other people who were in labor there as slaves. Mixed with the ideas that Jefferson had about what he wanted to create and the ideas that he brought back there from all parts of the world. But to require us to understand that it wasn’t this one quote “great man”, but it was the intelligence and the ingenuity and the innovation of others who were of African descent who live there, requires us to understand that these are people who were three dimensional, that just as with today all of us, all of those stories are present and required. Which is also why when people say… some people say, “I don’t even understand why Monticello exists.” And my… in part my reaction to that is, “And so, you want to erase the Hemings family and the Graingers and the Faucets and the Herns?” And all of their stories which are also stories… They’re obviously stories of pain and hard labor and beatings and all the things that went into that but there are also stories about how men and women loved one another and took care of their children. The enslaved men who would walk miles every week to go visit the woman, the women that they consider to be their wives, even though the law didn’t, and to maintain and build those relationships. So, I think it’s critical to understand and Sally Hemings and in some ways she’s… I’m using her as a representation of all of those individuals, to understand the fulsomeness of American life… of African American family life to dispel and push back on the caricature of those individuals that even still exist today. So, it must be Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson if we’re going to wrap our arms around all of who we are as a culture and society.  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  I love that answer. It’s… it is absolutely the case and I want to return to the question of why does Monticello exist and should we just raze it to the ground? Because we are witnessing… Indeed, we are in the throes of that very impulse now and I am… I say something of a contrarian people look at me and are just scandalized by my saying, you know, “You can take these statues down. You can take all of these Confederate statue is down. You can change the name of every highway bearing the name of a confederate general, change the building of every racist university campus.” But you have to contend with the history, nonetheless. You simply cannot erase things. You simply cannot say now this is gone and we move on. This may be gone but we still live…. Alice Walker has wonderful line in a story. The dialogue is between two characters and one of them is from the North and one of them is from the South, so that schematic to begin with because a lot of racism happened in the North and so… But the character says well, you know what happened when you all took all the signs down? And the character says nothing happened. She says nothing happened. She says no. The signs had already done their work. The signs had already done their work. And so yes, it would be completely misguided to think that you could simply raze Monticello to the ground and that that even that would constitute some measure of justice for someone because we will still live with the residue of that hist… it is in our bone structure. That is absolutely the case. I don’t know if you are on Twitter…. are you on Twitter? 

Interpretive caricatures of the enslaved experience

MELODY BARNES: I am. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Okay. There was the most wonderful exchange between a friend of mine who is an historian and at Princeton, Tera Hunter and Nicole Hannah Jones this week. And, you know, one of these multi-thread things. So, it’s… so Hannah Jones… And Nicole Hannah Jones kicked it off by referring to enslaved people as commodities and property exclusively. That they were not in the eyes of slave holders human beings they were simply chattel. And so, Tera Hunter comes back with an equally lengthy, but deeply thoughtful and measured response. “No, these people were not just chattel. These people, whether the slaveholders wrote about them in this way, they valued enslave people for their skills, they valued them for their human sensibilities. After all, a lot of these people were entrusted with bringing up their own children.” So, you’re absolutely right. But all of this is to say we have kind of accommodated ourselves whether consciously or not to really caricatures… interpretive caricatures, you know, we are accustomed to saying under U.S. chattel slavery, they were just property. But there are so many more dimensions to the story than that. Whether or not those other dimensions are told to the extent that yes, they are there.  

MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and part of the archaeological work that’s taken place at Monticello tells us more and more and more about how the enslaved men, women and children lived. That there were marbles, there were… There’s evidence of how they might play. There was fiddling, there was musical talent and musical genius there. The work ethic that taking care of family and children, you know, the oral history that’s been handed down. I think part of the problem with trying to hold these individuals in a one dimensional plane is that it then connects dots to the one dimensional plane that society or some in society try to hold people of color in today. And to understand how these individuals lived and thought helps us to understand the fulsomeness. And I think one of the interesting things and this isn’t necessarily a Monticello story, but one of the interesting things that we know about those who were enslaved in parts of America is one of the first things that many of them did when they left the plantation was that they open savings accounts. Savings accounts and just A. the thinking that goes into that but it is also a reflection of hopefulness, of planning and then we see what happened, you know, post-Civil War and the leadership positions in communities and state legislatures…. Federal… So, we know that these were multi-dimensional, hard-working, thoughtful, deeply innovative people. So, let’s connect the dots as far as we can to understand that story and to tell that story which I think is critical not only for our all of our children to understand today, but for all of us to understand today from whence we came no matter who you are as a matter of race or ethnicity. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Absolutely. 

The life of sally hemings exhibit at Monticello

JAMES PERLA: I have a question to follow up briefly about the Hemings exhibit, maybe two questions. But first, I just want to get a little bit of context about the process of setting up the exhibit. We talked to Niya Bates also at Monticello and I just wanted maybe you to meditate a bit on what that process was like and why was it that you… that Monticello in particular chose to represent Hemings in the way that you did in that exhibit?  

MELODY BARNES: Sure. Well the evolution of the exhibit at Monticello… the exhibit about Sally Hemings’ life was a long one. And in some ways it has its roots in the response that was received to the restoration of Mulberry Row. The row of places where the enslaved families lived. And watching some people… Visitors walk in and look around and say, “Oh, well this wasn’t so bad,” which you know sends chills, you know through your body. So, one we wanted to think about how do we tell the story? Based on what we know and we don’t know a lot. There are no pictures that we can find. We can find written descriptions. And what we also had was the oral history and interview that one of her sons had done in an Ohio newspaper. So, using that, because we felt as though that gave us a lot of factual information that was firsthand and what we had from the records, we decided that the representation of Sally Hemings shouldn’t be an attempt at period restoration because we didn’t want the,”Oh, well this wasn’t so bad.”

JAMES PERLA: And by period restoration you mean like a reproduction of her room? 

MELODY BARNES:  Right, You know, sometimes, you know, you go to a historic home or you go to… Well, a historic home would be the best example and they try to recreate the bed or the pallet that the slaves slept in. That we didn’t want to do that. That we wanted to use the words of her son to tell that story. And that we wanted to create something that was deeply meditative for people with that information and we went back and forth and back and forth with a company that worked with us to help tell that story in that way. And for those who I hope will go to Monticello and see this.  I’m being careful. I don’t want to… I want them to respond. I want people to respond to what they see but I think it is done very simply. But I think it is also done very very powerfully. And I know the reaction I had when I first saw it before it opened. And I was with my husband and two other friends and literally tears were in all of our eyes when we left that room. And being there the day that it opened and watching people come out, you know, in silence people needed a place to just be and to think and to contemplate what they had witnessed and what they had read through… in those words. I feel it it ultimately was the powerful representation and the most honest and truthful interpretation of her life that we could possibly give.   

JAMES PERLA: For someone who might not… We’ve been. It’s fantastic but maybe for someone who might not be familiar with what the exhibit is. I think it’s notable that, you know, you walk into this, you know, there’s a buzz of activity going on around, you know, in the grounds and then you walk into this kind of quiet dark room. And so, could you maybe just describe… Maybe even your personal experience going through that and what that was like maybe on first viewing? 

MELODY BARNES: Sure. So, you… To visit you walk into a room that is one of the two rooms that we believe that she lived in and that’s as far as we could narrow it down. And when the door is closed you are in darkness as she would have been but for candlelight or, you know, fire at night and there is the words of her son as told through an interview that he did with the newspaper are projected and then an outline of her kind of… in silhouette again, because we don’t know what she looked like we don’t we have a basic description from the oral history. But we don’t have any pictures so we didn’t want to pretend like we knew or even that we know what Sally Hemings looks like. So, there’s a silhouette that takes you through her history when she first came as a child when she was in France and with Jefferson, which is… she was there to help take care of one of Jefferson’s daughter’s. The fact that she came back and she was pregnant. The exchange that she had with Jefferson about what her life would look like if she came back because at first she was not going to come back. Her brother was living in France and in France there was the opportunity for freedom, but ultimately did come back. And then the life that she had going forward there. Again, all through the words of her son projected on the wall. And I think also that when I describe her in silhouette, even that changes as you go through the different… the arc of her life as she was at Monticello. 

representation without information

JAMES PERLA: Sorry, final question at this point because we’re, you know, the notion of literary scholars I think is important and the role of representation because there’s so little information about Hemings herself. I wanted to ask… The sort of choice to make this sort of like a found poetry type of representation that is almost like a turn towards sort of a more abstract register to almost get to sort of the true story of Hemings the need to go through some type of representation that’s not necessarily a historical through and through a period piece or yeah. Does that question make sense? 

MELODY BARNES: I feel your question in my bones, but I might need… 

JAMES PERLA: I think another around this is the other day, Titus Kaphar gave a lecture at UVA Special Collections Library, and he hinted… I don’t know if this is officially, we’re supposed to say it… but he hinted at the possibility of showing some of his paintings at Monticello. Recently, there was a lot of buzz about a musical performance that you all did on the grounds of Monticello. And so, the role of sort of to animate and to show the humanity of enslaved peoples for whom we have very little information. The need to turn to the sort of gaps in the history and to sort of make that history have a sort of affective or emotional truth that is not represented in sort of historical information from the archives, which is obviously controlled by the sort of the…  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “The lions write history.” And so, the work of the lions is in the archives. Yeah, people who leave papers people who leave writings? Yes, if maybe if I’m understanding you… are you asking what do we gain? What do we lose? With having recourse only to representation? Is that?

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, I think so and the possibilities of because they’re so little information this choice to make it sort of this meditative, as you describe, this feeling where, you know, you don’t get the, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” You get the… the sort of feeling of what that was like and again that’s sort of because of the lack of information. So, I think yeah that yeah sort of helps … 

MELODY BARNES: It is and it’s a rich question there so many facets to it. I think one it forces us to wrestle with and look in the eye of the fact that we don’t have a lot of information. And that’s particularly interesting in this instance because it is Monticello and it is Jefferson and Jefferson wrote down everything. Everything. So, he leaves lots of detailed notes and the register of those who were enslaved there. There’s all of that. That he had the power, he could control that but for those who were enslaved they didn’t have that. So, what we have left behind are artifacts that have been uncovered as a result of archaeology and we have oral history and interviews by the descendants. And the oral history that we still have that we are still collecting at Monticello today of descendants. And so, that requires us, I think, to be very careful, to be thoughtful and to be responsible with… and accountable for how we are treating all of that information. Not making…  letting people interpret it to make and draw their assumptions. To put it in an historical context. When people go they will see a sign outside of her room about the issue of rape, recognizing the lack of agency that enslaved women had at that time, the fact that she was owned by someone. And at the same time, we want people to understand the humanity of those who were enslaved there. And that comes through, I believe, when you go on the tour because everyone has been trained to talk about the multidimensionality of those individuals. I know, I have friends… I went to Monticello as a kid and, you know, people either we didn’t talk about the slaves or we talked about them as servants or so there are euphemisms and now there’s very plain spoken language. These were enslaved people. This is what happened. This was the labor that burdened them. This is the way some of them died. This is the way many of them… Some of them tried to escape. This is what happened to some of them who tried to escape. And included in that is the representation of Sally Hemings’ life in a way that we hope people do feel deeply and we’re not trying to shape or impress a set of feelings upon people but we’re trying to give you as much as we possibly can as accurately as we can so that people walk away with an understanding of what this woman’s life was about and the facts that we have about her life and the lives of hundreds of others who lived there for… With good reason we talk a lot about Sally Hemings, but there were hundreds of others who live there and we have their  oral history and as much as the of the archaeological material as we possibly can to tell their stories as well.  

The spectrum of love

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I’m thinking there’s just so much resonance and what you’re saying. I want to go back to a few minutes ago. Well, no, I’ll come back to that later because I want to confront the question of rape and maybe then connect it to Sally Hemings in France because it’s so complicated from our contemporary perspective. Sally Hemings is fourteen. So, fourteen for us now is not the age of consent, but it would be anachronistic to say Sally Hemings was an underage girl that Jefferson raped and sexually exploited because fourteen-year-olds could be married in the 18th century. So, we are working with very different conceptions of childhood. In fact, indeed the reality that childhood as a category of human development is a very late phenomenon in human history. And so, we can’t say she was underage and yet we want to be able to capture that whether underage or not in the terms that the 18th century understood it, something happened to her and to her body that was wrong. So, we wrestle with the particularities of history, what history allows us to say if we’re being responsible, but it’s that… but what has to almost override it are the questions of morality because, you know, I’m reminded of, you know, Martin Luther King often made the distinction between man-made laws and moral laws, right? And so, this is analogous to that and so I was taken with the fact that both in the press, I read the review in the New York Times of the exhibition, and there on-site the the concept of rape is invoked, you know, unapologetically, right? And so, help us think about what brought you to that point even knowing that, well, how do you say it was rape? How do you know since so little is known about what passed between these people? How can you have conviction about whether that is the terminology you want to use?   

MELODY BARNES: Well, throughout the building of that exhibit and I even every time I use the word exhibit I cringe a little bit because it sounds…. It doesn’t hold the import of what this is. So, as we were thinking about how to share and represent the story of her life based on what we knew, we spend a lot of time with historians who are Jefferson-Hemings historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed, to help us work through all of the issues and what we knew, but I think what was most important to us was A. identifying the lack of agency that she… Sally Hemings had. Simply by virtue of being born into slavery. She could not control her own body, her destiny, her decision. She… by what we know of what happened in France, she was able to have a back-and-forth of some sort with Jefferson to try and shape what her life would look like and the life of her children when she returned, if she returned, when she returned to Monticello, but she couldn’t wake up and say, “You know what? I ain’t doing that.” She didn’t have those choices that we have today and because that includes control over her body, we felt that it was absolutely necessary. It would be irresponsible not to call that question and not to require those who visit that exhibit to look in the eye of what it would be like to have been Sally Hemings and that period of time and literally one of the most powerful men in the country owns you and what happens as a result of that. And the, you know, six children. I may be a little bit off right now that she carried and bore. We have to understand that as a country and I think it is also important in the same way people similarly as they walked through Mulberry Row and said, “Oh this wasn’t so bad.” We want people to understand just what it would mean to be an enslaved woman at that point in time. Also understanding and bringing in as much of the facts, and as you say the context, as we possibly could. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: It is vitally important and I think to impress that upon people is critical and yet there is always an “and yet” for speculative thinkers. And this is the “and yet” for me and it’s inspired by an account of another enslaved woman that literary historians have done lots of work to verify, to ascertain and that’s Harriet Jacobs who was owned by Dr. Flint in South Carolina. And she enters into a relationship with another white propertied man. He doesn’t own her but he’s a part of that class and she describes in the book: It is better to choose if you are going to enter into a relationship with someone who has overwhelming power over you. It is important to be able to choose that person. So, with Harriet Jacobs, whether we think it makes sense or not, in her mind, she’s making a choice. She’s making a choice to enter into a relationship with a white man to bear him two children, alright? So, I want to then go back to what you said much earlier about people who travel for miles and miles and miles to see their loved ones which establishes the fact that these were deeply feeling people who form deeply human, feeling, sustaining attachments, right? Toni Morrison writes about a character in Beloved, Sixo, who is in love with “the 30-Mile Woman” and he will walk 30 miles back and forth to be with that woman. So, that’s the depth of the love. So, then it brings us to the question, these are feeling people and feelings have a way of not yielding to human and social constructs. This is a long-winded preamble. I’m aware, but I’m intentionally being long-winded. So, Thomas Jefferson owns this woman. She has no agency. Certainly not under the law. Absolutely not. She can’t say, “I’m not doing this,” right?  But she bore him six children. It’s impossible in the discourse for us to think of that relationship as possibly admitting of love between these two people. When people want to say… I was once at my own dinner table in a conversation with Mia Bay and Mia Bay says, “Deborah. That’s impossible. You just can’t say that. It is just it is an insult to Sally Hemings and to all the other enslaved women.” And I said, “That’s not what I’m doing here.” I’m simply asking why has that been such an unthinkable proposition? Why is it impossible to enter the conversation? Because you can’t know what happened you simply cannot know. We don’t know. And so, people on both sides of the ideological divide, whether they are diehard Jeffersonians or defenders of Sally Hemings, say you can’t even broach the question of love in this situation. They just don’t. I can’t. Leave that away. Leave that alone. What can’t we broach that question?   

MELODY BARNES: Because of the horror that was slavery. Because of the genocide that was slavery. Because it was destructive in the most fundamental sense of the word that I believe it is hard to imagine that there is something loving that could have emanated from that and that’s why I believe it is so difficult, virtually impossible, to wrap your arms or your mind or your heart around that. Because it also I think it requires individuals to think someone that would buy and sell people, someone that would rip families apart, someone that would allow individuals to be beaten within an inch of their life, if not taking their life, someone who would see a person try to flee to freedom and send out slave catchers or an overseer to capture them and bring them back, how could that person also be in love with an enslaved person? Because if you love them wouldn’t you let them be free? So, that’s why I think it’s, you know, that idea kind of hits the mind and slides right off. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, I love that answer too and I especially love the thinking and the heart. You say, you know, in your thinking and in your heart you can’t admit of this. And I want to… James has heard me mentioned this many many times because, you know, I’m just I’m asking a different kind of question that may not always register as I intended and that’s in a failure of my own articulation, but I’m asking why can’t we think of this? Because children for example, who are abused, love the parents who abuse them. You know? That power in relationships is fundamental to relationships. I always joke and say people talk about how helpless infants have no power. Well, yeah in certain ways of understanding power, but if an infant is screaming to the top of that infant’s lung power at 3 a.m and will only stop if you walk back and forth rocking them, that infant has had the power to murder your sleep. So, this is all… and James has heard me use this analogy because, you know, as a person of my generation and my training so many of my references are literary references. And so, it’s so… Faulkner has this wonderful story in Go Down Moses and it’s a fictional character Ike McCaslin is in the commissary going over the ledgers much like Jefferson’s farm books. Everything is written down. So, gets to this point in the ledger where it says, and this is his grandfather, “Gave Eunice $1,000 upon the birth of her son.” So, Ike the grandson is saying, “What? He gave a slave woman $1000? There must have been some kind of love. Or something like love? She wasn’t just some afternoon spittoon?” But he doesn’t know what it is. But he’s saying there is something else that has to define this relationship. I don’t know what it is. Is it love? He’s not saying it is. And then Annette Gordon-Reed really kind of opens that door and then there are a lot of legal scholars Adrienne Davis is one of them. And Adrienne Davis has written and unearthed lots of instances of slaveholders, men of the planter class, who had long-term relationships with slave women. Some of them acknowledge those relationships, some of them… Yes. Some of them were common-law marriages. Some of them really left, bequeathed to these children property and such. And that the only time these men would be prosecuted for violating anti-miscegenation laws was when it could be determined that these were not fly-by-night relationships. That this is somebody I live with, I sleep with. I don’t just go through the back door and after two hours leave. So, we have all that evidence too. And I want to be… to make it clear. I’m with you. I understand people who do not want to say, “No, you couldn’t possibly love people when you do this to them. When you separate them from children, you… No. None of that is in the universe of love,” right? But the question is always… What do we lose when we can’t enter that conversation, even if we conclude well, this is not the kind of love I would want. This is a messed up, distorted, you know, abusive kind of love, so I don’t want any parts of it. But something… Something that had to be going on with these people that it lasted for as long as it did. Not just… he wasn’t making his way among the other women that he would have had access to. It was this woman. It was her.  

MELODY BARNES: Yeah, I think that those questions and so many others are inherent to our struggle in America to talk about and to wrestle with what we know about slavery and that period of American history and also how it shapes our conceptions of blackness and whiteness and the society that we live in today. I mean well…. It is just, you know, I don’t know the third rail or whatever, you know, we… Taking what we know, taking what we feel, taking who we are today and putting that all together to have a conversation and to engage in that and to let the mind wrap around that is something that I think is it is so difficult for us and that’s why I think we struggle to ask ourselves the questions that you’ve posed. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I get it. I completely get it. I understand why many people would greet such a question as offensive as misguided as, you know, what kind of monster are you to even formulate this question. I mean, really? 

MELODY BARNES: Are you trying to make it, make this better than it was?

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Not about making it better because again, I was so glad to hear you, this is slight a slight departure, but I’ll circle back, you know, well slavery wasn’t so bad. I mean that’s one of the criticisms I have had of many universities that are seeking to interrogate their slave past. There’s always some figure that’s been legendary in the recovery… For UVA, it’s the Henry the bell ringer. For William and Mary, it’s Lemon… Lemon the slave named “Lemon” and I say well, you know, this recovery process and this coming to terms with your own foundations and slavery and the profits that ensued there from, it’s as if well, these are all triumphalist stories. No matter what, Henry’s a slave, he rang the bell every day. He never missed a day of ringing the bell like, oh really? So, when I was asked to read at the dedication of Henry the bell ringer and I am like, “Mrs. Otis regrets that she’s unable to read today.” And I just resisted the explanation but the explanation was that. Because slavery was an institution that broke people, that undid people and that brokenness has been passed down from generation to generation to generation. But also with that brokenness, is the humanity you’re talking about. So, if these people have the capacity to love, the capacity to love is the capacity to love. It’s… I love the arguments people make in defense of members of the LGBTQ community. Love if you have that experience, you are among the fortunate of humanity. You can’t say you can love here but you can’t love there. 

Sexual Power Dynamics

JAMES PERLA: “Love Is Love.” 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “Love Is Love,” right? And so, it’s not about wanting to romanticize because even love is something that lives in history. We reduce love to the kind of, again, very modern phenomenon of romantic love, right? And I try to say that, you know, it’s yeah, romantic love no, I wouldn’t want to say… But something would explain why… Because it can’t be just sexual release. Rape is power. Rape isn’t even about sex. But you go to this same woman and you get six children with this woman. 

MELODY BARNES: One of the other reasons that people when hearing that still push back on it is that and this comes from the oral history as well, her son says that Jefferson didn’t… Essentially Jefferson didn’t treat us any differently than any other of the enslaved children. And so, if there had been more, why?… What I hear when I read that is why weren’t we treated differently, if we were his children? Why weren’t we treated better? And I just think that it is hard to… Impossible to imagine love as we conceive of it being a part of that relationship. I don’t know. I think that it requires us… What we can take and this is what we try to do was what we know of the time, what we know of her story as articulated by her son, understand the horror of that period and understand… Try to better understand what her life looked like. And, yeah. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I completely get it and it’s not speaking out of both sides of my mouth to say though that to the extent that we can’t broach this as the question then we really are wittingly or not basically continuing to perpetuate division. That hasn’t come out exactly as I want. And it would take me too long to interpret myself and you’ve already… We’re over the time you’ve allotted us. Yeah, we didn’t even ask most of the questions, but your answers were so fertile that I wanted to follow up on what you were saying. And again, as we wind down I think about Gayle Jones’s novel, Corrigedora. And it is about slavery in Brazil and Corrigedora is the name of the slaveholder and again the grandmother of the central character in the novel has passed down the stories about slavery and at one point the central character asks her mother who had asked her mother, you know, “What did you feel about Corregidora?” And she answers, “What I was taught to feel.” And that is very different. What I was taught to feel. What I was schooled to feel, right? So, we have all undergone a form of cultural tutelage and that tutelage has obligated us to a set of responses and reflexes and interpretations that we don’t want to let go of and it’s easy in one sense to keep them, “Oh, that? I know what that is. Let’s move on. That? Oh, yeah. I know what that. Let’s move on.” Mhm. And I think where the evidence is so thin, where so little is known, it seems to me when you open the door to speculation, you can open the door to speculation on a broad scale. Because you can say at one and the same time that something was going on that we don’t quite understand. And it was going on in the midst of brutality, in the midst of exploitation. I mean and that is the nature of life. I remember being also chastised when Marion Barry was convicted, you know, in the sting. And so, people well, they’re bringing down all our elected officials and they put black men under the greatest forms of surveillance. And I said, that’s true. But it is also true that he went into the Vista Hotel and smoked the crack pipe. Both of these things are true. [laughter] 

The Responsibility of Historically Violent Spaces

JAMES PERLA: Well, you have been very generous with your time and possibly, you know, final questions, you know, pending thoughts? Anything you want to say? Yes, I’m thinking to you know about this progressivist narrative and I’m not sure if we’ve had the opportunity to ask the question of, you know, what responsibility does an institution like UVA or other such institutions have if any to sort of these histories of violence? And to addressing these histories? During our interview with Niya Bates, she mentioned this great line during… from the president of the Ford Foundation who said that, you know, institutions, and this is paraphrasing, but institutions sort of have to be willing to give up certain, you know, things in order to for sort of the moral and human like realities of what it takes to address those legacies of violence and history. And so, yeah, wherever you find your way into that. What are our institutions willing to give up willing not to give up or what responsibilities do institutions such as these have to that history? 

MELODY BARNES: I think with with the University of Virginia and Monticello and in a different way, some ways the same, some ways different… If you’re in the education business, then you have to educate and that requires at its base telling as much of the truth as we know. To put as many of the facts that we have on the table and reverence, symbols…. They aren’t… They don’t help us in the long run. In fact, they are they are harmful because they allow us to perpetuate narratives that aren’t true. That it is possible and not only possible, it is necessary to tell the truth and to extract the positive from that. You know, Jefferson was founder to a university based on the idea that a democracy, a constitutional republic had to have an educated citizenry. Now, who he defined as who is a citizen and the treatment of those individuals is the ugly horrible part of the story that we also have to rectify but we can’t do that unless we tell all of the story and that is part of the education process. That’s part of what it requires to be in the education business and I believe that Monticello similarly has moved forward in ways that I think are so critically important. It’s why I joined the Board and could join the Board to help continue that work of telling the truth. And you can both talk about Jefferson and religious freedom, Jefferson as a deeply curious person, Jefferson as scientist. All of those things and also talk about what it means that Jefferson was a slaveholder and the contradiction in those things which I think is the contradiction that we still hold today. And it is important for us to tell the story of everyone who was there. Jefferson, his daughters, his wife who died young, and Sally Hemings, and all of those who are enslaved there if we’re going to understand all of that and what really happened. And that these things just didn’t kind of pop up like, “Oh, Monticello just appeared, you know, food it just appeared.” You know, I remember going in a house tour in Charleston, South Carolina and the tour guide said, described, you know, there were six slaves who lived here and then she described the architecture of the building and said, “But we don’t know how that happened.” What do you mean you don’t know how that happened? Of course, we know how that happened. So, it requires telling the entire set of… Putting all the facts on the table and I believe for the work that we are doing now and that I’m co-directing with the Democracy Initiative, that it is part and parcel of that. That for a public university that seeks to not only educate those who come here but to put information into the world that will improve not only our society but a global society, that it is important for us to take leadership, to take the helm of doing that at and to interrogate our assumptions. To interrogate what we know, the things we think we know and try to move forward with what is actually the truth and to share that in a way that people can understand and absorb it and that ultimately we can make our… Not only are our society here, but our global community better and stronger as a result of doing that work. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: That’s a wonderful point, perhaps on which to end. Unless you have something else you might want to add. Yeah. This is really been wonderful. As I said I could just listen to you forever.

MELODY BARNES: I’ve so enjoyed this conversation which I’ve been wanting to have for the longest time. I remember when they did the new faculty dinner, whatever that was and I saw you across the room and then the dinner ended and since then I’ve been thinking I’ve got to reach out because I wanted to get together.

David Thorsen

David Thorsen: First off. Let me introduce myself. My name is David Thorsen. I’ll be your guide. How many of you been here before?

James Perla: Almost everyone.

DT: Yeah, almost everyone and uh, when did you arrive here today? You just get here now? Okay, great. My proposal is to find places where we can stay dry, does that sound okay? Sort of vary the traditional tour route with the weather in mind. Fair enough? Let me ask one more question. How many of you have visited the newly restored room that more fully explores the life of Sally Hemings? Anyone done that? All right. We’re going to go in there. We’re going to do that on our own privately. Okay sound good, right, great.

[Walking until 1:50]

JP: So we did get to see the fog, it’s really dramatic. Oh my gosh, normally can see for miles.

[Inaudible conversation until 2:52]

DT: What do you think? This building’s about 11 foot by 14 foot. It’s got a second-story loft up there and typically up to a dozen people would call this home. Now this structure is very typical on any plantation in Virginia. You find houses, homes like this for the enslaved community and just think about this structure compared to the great house Monticello above us. This structure is about 1/4 of the size of just the entrance hall of the great house. We’re going to talk about the Hemings family and during the time we spend together I’d really like to have a dialogue. So if you got a question, that’s why I’m here. Don’t be shy. We’re going to talk about race and we’re going to talk about entanglement, we’re going to talk about struggle, we’re going to talk about legacy. Now when I say race, is that a scientific concept?

Deborah McDowell: No

DT: It’s a social construct.

All: Yes

DT: So it does exist even though it’s not scientifically valid. When I talk about entanglement what do I mean? The lives of the people who are free here at Monticello and the lives of the people who are enslaved here at Monticello are all tangled up. And the Hemings family is particularly tangled up with the Jefferson family. And when I talk about struggle, what do I mean? The system of slavery is all about what? It’s about exploiting people, about excluding people, it’s about inequality. It’s about owning people as property.

DM: Containing their movement, containing their freedom.

DT: Containing their movement. It’s a system of real and threatened violence; physical force, psychological force. [5:00] It’s a system justified even by people like Thomas Jefferson who know it’s wrong by doing what? By rationalizing, by creating a system, by advancing the idea that the humanity of those who are enslaved can be denied to justify what? The system of slavery. But for those who are enslaved, what’s the struggle about? Retaining dignity, affirming humanity, holding on to hope that one day perhaps all those words in that Declaration of Independence might apply in the broadest possible fashion. And how about legacy? Does Thomas Jefferson leave us a legacy?

DM: He leaves us the legacy of democracy, compromise, for one thing

DT: How about the words in the Declaration of Independence?

DM: The words of the Declaration are in tension with the realities of the descendants of the enslaved and many others, but certainly since we’re talking about slavery; incompatible. Those words are incompatible with and have had a lasting effect on the lives of the descendants of the enslaved.

DT: So what I would tell you is that Jefferson leaves us a dual legacy. He wrote the words of the Declaration of Independence. How many of you have read the only book that Jefferson wrote called Notes on the State of Virginia and read query 14. What does he say in that query?

DM: Many things. I’m talking too much.

DT: I mean you’ve read it, were you disturbed by what you read if you read query 14, what’s he saying? He’s saying horrible things about human beings!

DM: And attempting to rationalize those horrible things by resorting to pseudo-scientific language.

DT: Scientific racism, which are two words, two words that don’t actually connect to each other, right? A contradiction.

DM: Which is why pseudo is much more accurate. It’s not science, it’s pseudoscience.

DT: Yes ma’am. Absolutely. So yeah, we’re going to talk about all these things. So let’s let’s talk about the Hemings family, let’s talk about how they find themselves on this Monticello Plantation. Jefferson marries in 1772. He marries Martha Wayles Skelton. He’s actually her second husband her first husband died, but she’s the daughter of John Wayles who is a slave trader and when John Wayles dies Jefferson inherits the Hemings family. Elizabeth Hemings is the matriarch of the family. And so she has 12 children over the course of her lifetime. And what’s unusual in some ways about the Hemings family when John Wayles dies is that family arrives here intact, they’re not sold off and broken up. So that is one of the keys to our knowledge about the Hemings family is the survival of that family as an intact family when Elizabeth hemings arrives here. Twelve children; six of those children are the children of John Wayles, one of those children Sally Hemings. What does that mean? Jefferson’s wife… Sally hemings. They’re half sisters. Now thats what am I talking about when I say entangled from the very beginning. So now imagine owning members of your family has property. And the Hemings family, we know more about this family than we know probably about any other enslaved family in the United States because of the rich oral tradition that they pass on to us and because of Jefferson’s writings in the writings of others regarding Monticello. They’re the largest enslaved family here. Over the course of his lifetime Jefferson owned over 80 members of the Hemings family and when he died one third of the people enslaved at Monticello were members of the Hemings family. Jefferson owned over his entire lifetime, he owned 607 human beings. How many people did he free?

All: Five

DT: Ah,  I’m gonna give you a different answer. I’m gonna say ten: five in his lifetime, five in his will. Of course all ten people are members of the Hemings family. That’s it.

JP: So I do have a question because in the video, um, when there’s talk about slavery at Monticello it says that there are 143 enslaved peoples? So I’m wondering about that discrepancy.

DT: Sure, that’s a great question. So let’s talk about the difference between lifetime ownership and then the number of enslaved people here at any given time. And 140-150 is a pretty good number at any at any given time. So you can think about roughly 175 people total on the plantation, two-thirds [10:00] of those people are the enslaved African Americans who are working the plantation, who are building the great house. And one of the other things to think about during our time together, um, I always ask myself the question who is trying to control the narrative? Does that make any sense to you?

DM: Oh, yeah.

DT: Yeah. So let’s take an example of then. John and Priscilla Hemings. John Hemings, thats Sally hemings younger brother. He’s the master woodworker here. His wife Priscilla Hemings is the nanny to Jefferson’s own grandchildren, but they’re not owned by Thomas Jefferson. He owns John Hemings, his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph owns Priscilla Hemings. So imagine a husband and wife owned by different people. Is that a problem? It’s certainly a problem when the Randolph’s are at Edgehill across the Rivanna River and this husband and wife are physically separated from each other until 1809 when the Randolph family moves to Monticello. If you read the memories of the Randolph children, Thomas Jefferson’s grandchildren, about John and Priscilla Hemings the story you here I would tell you is one of Moonlight and Magnolias. What are they telling us? What do they call John and Priscilla Hemings, do they call Priscilla Hemings? Priscilla? They called her mammy. What do they call John Hemings? Daddy. Right? So there’s this familiarity being created but is it two ways or one way?I cannot tell you what John and Priscilla Hemings thought about the world in which they lived because they never revealed their true feelings. So the Narrative of their story is being controlled by others. But imagine Priscilla Hemmings despite those grandkids saying things remembering her thousand little kindnesses. What’s the possibility she could be inherited by one of those grandkids taken away, who knows where separated from her husband forever? That’s some of the reality. All right. Let’s go have a look at that new exhibit dedicated to the life of Sally Hemings.

…..

[Enter Sally Hemings exhibit, ends at 21:15]

DT: I had a great question: why did we pick that room? Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, pointed out to one of Jefferson’s biographers. They were walking around here at Monticello and he pointed that direction at those two rooms right there and said that that is where Sally Hemings lived. So it’s one of those two rooms we don’t know which so we chose one. What do we do with the room right next door? That is dedicated to a project began 25 years ago called Getting Word. It’s the oral history of the descendents of those once enslaved here at Monticello. So one of those two rooms we had to pick was occupied by Sally Hemings. So a great question. What else what do you think? Are you unpacking what we saw? So you know who, where those words come? From her son, Madison Hemings, 1873 when he was interviewed. There’s an awful lot of information in that very short period of time he’s telling us lots and lots of things, isn’t it? About the connection between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I used the word connection. Why? What other word could I use? If I use the word relationship would that…? Would that create a sense of something that might not be happening?

DM: Yes and no. Because there are obviously lots of relationships. So in the most descriptive sense like we are in a relationship right now. We are in relation to each other. We’re in physical proximity to each other. So if we don’t attach contemporary ideological meanings to the term ‘relationship’ we can in fact use it.

DT: As long as we’re clear about what we mean. So I say connection to start off at conversation, that dialogue about trying to unpack. We know what Madison Hemings told us so that gives us some perspective. We also have the perspective of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and I’ll share their perspectives. Some of those descendants see a love affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. other descendants see something much much different than a love affair. They see the opposite. Other descendants a young woman trying to navigate the world of slavery in such a way that as her son Madison says, creates a treaty with Jefferson that allows what? Allows your children to become free. So. There’s multiple answers to this question. Which answer is right? I would tell you that no one, no one knows, no one knows so we’re left with that. What I can, I think tell you for certain is that there is always an imbalance of power between these two people. One is the master. The other is his property. So any other vision of this connection, of this relationship has to begin, I think, with that foundation of understanding [25:00]  this lifelong imbalance of power between these two people. Does that all make sense? Yeah, come on this way.

[Walking, shuffling]

JP: All right. So, now we’re walking up to the main house by kind of from the side up from what they called the dependencies. Hey good to see you. And this is an approach to the main house. Looks like we’re circling back towards the entrance. Uh, yeah.

DT: Over the course of time is really members of the Hemings family who take up positions of relative privilege on this Monticello Plantation. So Jefferson’s making choices about the people who are enslaved here. In the case of the Hemings family, he is literally aligning that family with his own family. So what do you think? Is it typical or not typical on a Virginia Plantation on any Southern plantation for the master to select one family from the enslaved community and then align that family with his own family?

[Inaudible answers]

DT: You think it’s not typical? It’s relatively common. It’s relatively common for this to occur and you’ll find that in primary source evidence when you when you look at plantation history that it’s actually not unusual for one family to be, now, is it that enslaved family’s choice? That alignment? No.

[Inaudible comment]

DT: Yeah. Yeah, so it’s the norm and that’s how the Hemings family they find themselves in that position.

DM: Well then the question is, why would they find themselves in that situation?

DT: It’s a really great question. So, why would that be? Could it be the connection to Jefferson’s wife, to her family and to the role that they played in his wife’s family that this is a long-standing alignment? I think that that’s a factor. Could it be other factors? Could it be but it even be the color of someone’s skin driving that choice. Particularly if you are going to describe the people working in the house not as your slaves, but as your servants. You can create a bit of an Illusion by doing that. So, we talked about Sally Hemings. I want to talk about four other members of the Hemings family real quick before we step into the house. I want to talk about Sally Hemings older brothers Martin, Robert and James Hemings and about her nephew Burwell Colbert. So when you stop and think about it, when the Hemings family is inherited by Thomas Jefferson, there are members of the Hemings family literally at his side all the way up to the point of his death. In the job today you and I call the butler. Martin Hemings, Robert Hemings, James Hemings, Burwell Colbert; all served in these capacities. These three brothers, Martin, Robert, and James, at some point in time all three of them defy Thomas Jefferson. So can you imagine that? Imagine an enslaved person defying their master? Martin Hemings in 1792 has some sort of an argument, a falling out with Thomas Jefferson such that Martin Hemings says sell me to anyone. [30:00] Anyone other than you. What’s going on there? I don’t know. We do not know what happened to Martin Hemings. There is no record of sale. There is no record of Martin Hemings running away. The very last reference to Martin Hemings is in January of 1795 three years after this incident. And in that time Martin Hemings has been, hid the problem of Martin Hemings has been handed off to Jefferson son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, and we literally don’t know what happened to Martin. So it’s speculation. Some people think that he might have died or that that he ran without pursuit or that perhaps Thomas Mann Randolph simply allowed him to disappear. It’s a mystery. We do know what happened to Robert and James Hemings. Robert Hemings now becomes the butler and then his younger brother, James takes on that role. Robert and James Hemings are both legally freed by Thomas Jefferson, right? A letter of manumission recorded in the courthouse. Legal freedom. Robert Hemings gains his freedom in 1794, James Hemings in 1796. Robert Hemings, he’s in Philadelphia as a 14 year-old teenager. And what’s his job? He’s Jefferson’s butler in Philadelphia in 1776, but when Jefferson goes to France, 1784 to 1789, he doesn’t take Robert with him. He takes James to France to do what? To have him trained to be a French chef. That means Roberts back here being rented out. He was rented out to a doctor. Dr. Frederick Stross. Dr. Stross owned a woman named Dolly. Well Robert Hemings in Dolly fell in love with each other, but then Dr. Stross and Robert Hemings come up with an idea that if Jefferson can be convinced to free Robert Hemings at the price that he would have bought at an auction that Dr.Stross will allow Robert Hemings to work off, like he was an indentured servant, and then both he and his wife Dolly would become free. What do you think Jefferson thought about that idea? Woohoo? He accused Robert of disloyalty and he accused Dr. Stross of Jefferson’s words: debauching. What does that mean? He’s gonna be, he’s being stolen. But he does free Robert Hemings. And I want to tell you the story of James Hemings’ freedom a bit later. So we’ve got these three cases of people who defy Jefferson, but how about the case of Burwell Colbert? What… if you’re navigating the world of slavery, what choices do you have? Do you have any choices? You have very few, but you do have some choices. Burwell Colbert has the example of his brothers, but he come takes a completely different approach. He aligns himself with the entire Jefferson family in such a way that he becomes indispensable to them. You’ll even find letters where they’re talking about their inability, they can’t, they don’t know how to make coffee without Burwell Colbert. If Burwell Colbert is at Poplar Forest, 90 miles from here, and the rest of the family’s here, they’re all complaining about what? That Jefferson is gone? No! That Burwell Colbert is gone and the house is falling apart. The other thing to think about when you look at the house, when people come up here and look at the house, you know, obviously they think of Thomas Jefferson because he is the self-taught architect. He designed the house, he designed the grounds, the lawn, the range of the University of Virginia, designed the state capitol in Richmond. He’s the architect but I would stop and think about something else. Who built that house? The lawn, the range of the University of Virginia?

DM: Captives.

DT: Right, people held in bondage against their will. Yeah, there’s a small group of white craftsman, but the vast majority of people building this great house are members of Monticello enslaved community. So when you look at this house, think of the craftsmanship, think of the level of effort [35:00] erecting those stone columns, right? All this amazing architecture inspired by the temples of Rome. Jefferson’s the architect but whose executing those ideas? So in a lot of ways this house is a testament to Monticello’s enslaved community. It reflects their efforts, but who gets the credit? Jefferson.

JP:I wonder if you could talk a bit more about, you mentioned families and how families were kind of used at Monticello. I wonder if you can talk about kind of the role of like family structures in the plantation system?

DT: Sure, let’s do that. So when you stop and think about it, you know, the very first institution re-established by those brought here in bondage against their will from West Africa was the institution of family. So family bonds become critical and those family bonds can also be manipulated by the master. The fear of separation, the fear of sale, the fear of a husband and wife that their child might be given away as a gift or a present taken to to Tennessee or Kentucky or Florida. Right? But family is crucial in many ways to the survival of members of the enslaved community because that’s where safety is that’s where knowledge is passed on. And what kind of knowledge am I talking about? Perhaps the knowledge of how to navigate the system, perhaps the knowledge to read and to write with or without the approval of the master.

JP: And so how did Jefferson use family structures to manipulate them?

DT: Yeah. Let’s think about that too. What does Jefferson do, you know when at the very beginning here in Monticello um men and women enslaved people were kept in barracks, but he went to what we call nuclear family, single family housing. Why would he do that? Well, these relationships formed between people; husbands and wives. And if you’re in your own home, what’s the likelihood what’s going to happen? Children? Which means what to Jefferson? More property? So there is some manipulate, you know, there is a bit of manipulation going on there. So Jefferson, very clearly recognizes the role in the importance of family and how that can be used by him.

JP: And keeping families together? Is that seen as something to make them…

DT: Keeping families together, you know, when he buys he’s not a slave trader, but he generally would buy to unite or reunite a family but he’s going to sell those very same families as his lifestyle dictates, so he sees that importance of family and and you know family is important to all of us, right? But if but if you’re part of an intact family, are you more or less likely to run away? You’re not going to run away from your responsibilities from your loved ones. So there’s a two-way street here. I mean family’s invaluable, but it can be used to control, right?

[Walking, other tour guide speaking]

DT: The audio obviously is fine but when we go in the house itself, we don’t own everything so there’s no photography in the house. So, what’s on your mind? What else? I’ve been doing all the talking here and I can’t be that fascinating.

Josh St. Hill: So I guess one of my questions would be um, as far as like Thomas Jefferson and like how he chose to buy and sell slaves I know a lot of the like a lot of those slaves were acquired because of like his like recurrent debt that he had. He wasn’t like able to make good business decisions and I would say did that like really like affect his decisions to on like what slaves am I getting? Who am I freeing? Or like how

DT: His debt, his constant problem of debt is a tremendous influence on who he’s choosing to to sell. So he’s making a calculation. On a person’s relative value.

JP: So do you have any specific examples of that? [40:00]

[Pause for tour group]

JP: Yeah, it’s there a specific example of say when he sold to recoup or to make good on his debts?

DT: Sure, when he, when he is, when he’s in France as minister, ambassador to France is when he realizes just how heavily in debt he is and so he’s making calculations about who’s going to give him the the most value. A woman named Dinah who was a was a cook has tremendous value. So he’s making a very specific set of offers trying to sell Dinah to maximize.

JP: So was not the best businessman?

DT: He had a lifestyle problem. That’s the end of the, at the end of the day, look at this place.

DM: He had a bad fiscal manager. As we say, these days, he had a champagne taste on a beer pocket, but he didn’t exactly have to be a pocketbook. But he always live beyond his means.

DT: So take a look around the room. What do you think’s going on? Jefferson, a man of the Age of Enlightenment, knowledge is power. He’s got knowledge on display all around us. Have a look at the clock above the door. Jefferson designed the clock. It was made for him in Philadelphia in 1804. This clock was installed in that position by John Hemings and by an Irishman named James Dinsmore. Burwell Colbert probably watched this clock go up. You think Burwell Colbert had any idea what he’d be doing every Sunday for the next 25 years? Winding that clock. That’s the ladder used to wind the clock. Those are cannonball weights. They weigh 18 pounds a piece and the calendar system of the clock is right here as well. So it’s Tuesday afternoon. That’s what the top weight tells us. But if you take a look you’ll see that Jefferson had a problem, ran out of wall. That’s why Saturday’s under the house, why the weights travel right through the holes in the floorboards and on Sunday mornings around 6 a.m. it takes around 12 to 15 minutes apiece to crank all those weights up. So when you see all these Native American objects, what do you think? Who do you think of? Two men exploring the West leading a journey, Lewis and Clark? I think of Sacagawea? Does anyone think of York? Owned by William Clark makes that 8,000 mile round trip Journey, saves William Clark’s life. He’s important, essential, an indispensable member of that Lewis and Clark expedition; York. Can you imagine York here in 1806 talking to Burwell Colbert about what he’d experienced and what he’d seen? Can you imagine the conversation might have taken place as they compare notes on their experiences? And the other thing that we notice in this room is Jefferson’s never-ending search and thirst for knowledge, natural History lesson. That’s why the horns and antlers are there the fossils found on the banks of the Ohio river in 1807 by William Clark. He’s a man of the Enlightenment; knowledge is power. He’s also going back to Greek and Roman history as the Cradle of Western Civilization as a resource and as an inspiration. He’s tracing himself and his present day as what? The descendant of the Greeks and Romans and the civilization in created but if you read notes on the state of Virginia, what does Jefferson say about his interest in African culture and history? Does express any desire to know about Mali, about Timbuktu about the empires of Africa? He completely ignores any evidence of black culture and achievement and says he’s going to deal with the blacks he observes them where they are. Where are they in Virginia? What is he observed? People who are enslaved, not their cultures. So, you know in Timbuktu was a was a huge capital of 50,000 people as its population, London’s a backwater, but Jefferson’s not interested in that. A man of the Enlightenment. What’s he doing? Is he rejecting knowledge? Because it doesn’t fit the narrative?

JP: Can you talk a bit about how his study um of the natural world like intersects with his ideas about race and maybe cultural…

DT:  When you think about the Age of Enlightenment, when knowledge and ideas are competing and exploding all around Jefferson, he draws the conclusion that the American mastodon is extinct. Based on the knowledge [45:00] that he’s assembled. He’s in a competition with a Frenchman named the Comte de Buffon. The Comte de Buffon advances the idea that not only animals but human beings in North America, because of North America’s temperature, climate, and geography, will degrade over time and become shorter and less intelligent than Europeans. And what does Jefferson do to disprove that idea? He collects all these horns and antlers, he sends animal specimens to Buffon to show him these creatures are as big or bigger than the ones in Europe and advances the idea that the Native American population is a version of the Western European population needing only education and to be assimilated. But what are his conclusions about blacks? The exact opposite. Why? Does he own Native Americans? He owns human beings; African-Americans. So the enlightenment is turned inside out. He’s claiming he’s using science. But as we said it’s pseudoscience.

JP: Yeah, that’s so that’s so interesting. So he’s out there comparing who’s groundhog is bigger.

DT: Exactly right weighing these creatures exactly what he’s doing.

DT: You may well be familiar with this image. Anyone seen this image before?

JP: Wikipedia Commons.

DT: So John Trumbull’s ingra… the portrait Asher Duran’s engraving. Jefferson, what’s he doing? Turning in his homework project. But we were talking earlier. Just think about this in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who is fetching pen and paper and ink for Jefferson?

That’s Robert Hemings and he’s just 14 years old. So imagine Jefferson writing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” and 14 year old Robert Hemings is in the very same room. Do those words apply to him? 20% of the population of what is going to be the United States are held in bondage when Jefferson writes those very words. So there’s a contrast. Come on in. I want to talk more about family.

DM: Who were the individuals flanking the hallway?

DT: Oh the buses here?

DM: No, no. No the people.

DT: Oh they’re my fellow guides. Oh, he’s getting ready to go out and do a tour. She’s in waiting to go out and do a tour. Well, so yeah. Sorry about. A tour goes through the house.

JP: Every five minutes?

DT: Yeah

JP: Wow, yeah. As you said there’s good acoustics in this room.

DT: So we were just really kind of getting into a discussion talking about family dynamics and the role and so let’s let’s kind of break that down a little more. I wanted to maybe we should talk about house and field that make any sense when I say house and field what am I talking about?

JSH: House slaves and field slaves.

DT: Yeah. So let me ask you this: Is it better to be in the house or better to be in the field?

JSH: I’d say it depends on the perspective.

DT: Okay. So yeah, let’s unpack that.

JSH: Um, so of course, like if you’re working in the field, it’s a lot tougher on your body. I guess the physical conditions but as far as being like a house slave as far as being like an African-American and knowing like your self-identity and your self-worth that can deteriorate depending on the psychological issues that you face living in the house. Um, and of course, you can be a victim of sexual abuse because you’re a house slave, you know house slaves are fairly lighter, um better complexion as far as like from Caucasian perspective or slave master perspective. Um, whereas field plays of course are going through a lot of that physical torture that house slaves don’t have to face.

DT: Yeah. So proximity can be perilous even though you’re better fed, better dressed. You’re always under the eye of the master and his family. You may be more liable to exploit physical exploitation, of course out in the field you’ve got that overseer. So there’s that physical violence, but then again, there’s only one overseer, but if you’re in the house, I mean, there’s, it’s not only Jefferson. There’s two dozen members of his family in this house. So, who are you taking orders from? Anybody who has a [50:00] demand and of course generally speaking those working outside working in the field when the Sun goes down. The day is over and the time is your own until the sun rises again. So there’s there’s a relatively large block of time that you can call your own as opposed to being in the great house where in any time of day demands could be placed on you. So I really appreciate that because you know often times when you ask people who haven’t reflected haven’t thought through they think what a wonderful thing to be in the house and they don’t break down the the very unpleasant possibilities that could attend being in the house. So I never think it’s better or worse, but it certainly different. Although let me ask you this. So from the perspective of an individual working 14 hours a day, or sunrise to sunset, hard labor in the fields and seeing in this case because of the size of the Hemings family could be Hemings family members in the fields knowing that their cousins or brothers or sisters or aunts were in the house. What would your attitude be? Jealousy? Because because you believe that where they are is more advantageous? Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph said that the position of the Hemings family at Monticello in his words was a source of bitter jealousy among the rest of the enslaved population, but then I kind of think through this a little more and asked myself the question: If you are trying to create divisions within the enslaved community, if you’re trying to create a hierarchy as another means of control, that’s a pretty good way to do them right to create division, disunity within that population of people and how could you do that? How about the color of skin? Could that be used as a way to manipulate people because Jefferson we know from visitors coming to Monticello that virtually every single person enslaved person Hemings family member or not chosen to work in the house was lighter in color.

DM: And some were indistinguishable from whites.

DT: Oh indeed. Some mistaken or not mistaken for Jefferson’s own children.

DM: And his political opponents made that very clear.

JP: Yeah. I wonder if you can talk about more to about that moment when um, and this kind of combines family and business, of when uh of when the um, I guess it was Isaac Jefferson observes, maybe after Jefferson’s death observes families being sold away to kind of pay back his um his debts. I wonder if you can speak about that a little bit.

DT: Oh sure. I will. Maybe we’ll wait for a little when we talk about following Jefferson’s death. What happens to Monticello’s enslaved family? There’s some pretty compelling stories. This is Jefferson’s private suite. These are three rooms all connected together. So Jefferson’s interests are on display his love of learning through the books, architecture, a regulator; that clock ought to be in an observatory not a private home all these scientific instruments and of course you probably recognize this. One of the original blueprint drawings of the Lawn the range of the University of Virginia. So Jefferson believes that knowledge is power, safety and happiness. Tells his friend James Madison preach a crusade against ignorance. Education he believes is an absolute necessity to the survival of the new nation. Does Jefferson theories and ideas and faith and education extend to the enslaved community?

DM: Did they you’re asking?

DT: Yeah did they? Did Jefferson build a school here to educate those he enslaved? No, never. Monticello’s enslaved community in some cases are remarkably well trained, but is there a difference between training and education? If you are trained you are trained to do something. [55:00]  If you are educated, it’s about thinking critically thinking on your own. So there’s a real distinction and you know, Jefferson’s words and Notes on the State of Virginia I always contrast with with what he had to observe that’s completely opposite from the words that he wrote. Just talk about John Hemings. Jefferson said I advance as a suspicion that the blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind but it’s John Hemings building. This is pretty cool this elliptical arch but who do you think with that keystone in it? So this is from Jefferson’s blueprints. But who made this? That’s John Hemings and James Dinsmore. Does that look like the result of someone who is limited in the endowments of body and mind? He’s got to read those blueprints translate those blueprints into reality from nothing. What? From just raw lumber. Jefferson said that he observed that these are his words the griefs of blacks are transient. What does he mean? He means that if a parent is separated from from their children in a couple days, they’ll forget completely about. But John Hemings could read and could write and he’s helping he’s building Poplar Forest down in Bedford County. He’s writing letters to Jefferson. He’s almost always asking in those letters if he can come home for just a little while for what reason? To see his wife Priscilla. He’s grieving for his wife.

DM: Just point out one thing through to the students. James have all the students seeing the prison drawings?

JP: Uh, some have.

HC: I have.

JP: Hahna knows them quite well.

DM: Well we should circulate them. If we could just go over right here I don’t want to usurp your duties but I’m really struck by the resemblance between, I mean not point for point and line for line, but if you just do a quick look at that drawing and a quick look at the prison drawings, you’ll immediately see a kind of cursory resemblance. And so I’d just like the students to keep that floating around in their minds and when Angela Davis was at UVA she observed that the rooms on flanking the lawn were very carceral in nature. She says they’re carceral like so it’s just an observation. I want the students to see the similarities. Um, you know, not one to one, point by point, but the kind of superficial, um, visual similarities between.

JP: Do you have any thoughts Hahna?

HC: Yeah. And just like how the open space at the gardens are the are what resemble like the separation of the cells in the prison drawing. Which I find very interesting.

JP: Can you describe the drawing?

HC: Well the prison, it was just like I think like maybe six to eight separate cells and they were separated by both race and gender and then right at the top where the Rotunda would be was a solitary confinement cell. But yeah, I agree. It was very similarly laid out.

DT: So rather disturbing parallels to institutions. Both begun for what we’re supposed to be progressive and benign reasons.

DM: We get so little attention to this aspect of Jefferson’s architectural genius and that although those drawings were never executed, the prison drawings, which are in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Jefferson was himself in close contact with the leading prison architects of the day. So those drawings meant to be the blueprint for what would have been the first penitentiary in Virginia were not executed but what was executed was definitely executed with the involvement of Jefferson directly and indirectly.

JP: Is that fair to say Hahna? Our prison expert from your research here?

HC: Yeah. I think that’s fair to say and I think Jefferson wrote himself that Latrobe who ended up designing the penitentiary like may not have followed it like directly in design. But like in I guess what Professor McDowell was saying like in it’s like like theory and application and then he went on to provide the designs for two prisons in Virginia later.

JP: Jefferson.

HC: Jefferson did.

DM: So, Jefferson is to put it succinctly as the architect and exponent of the Enlightenment. Jefferson is present at the birth of the prison and though we can’t possibly talk about prison in the 18th century in the same way we talk about it now, as we really imagine the genealogy [1:00:00] of incarceration we have to, Jefferson has to be in the mix. So sorry sir for interrupting.

DT: No, it’s a great conversation because it does it does take us back to this whole notion of a dual legacy being left behind by Jefferson because he really certainly in America is I mean, I would advance the idea that he is the first person in the history of the United States who is trying to create a scientific in his mind pseudo-scientific in our mind justification for racism as a means to justify the treatment of people by, he’s creating an other and if you create an other that allows you to do what? Other than me right? To do terrible things to people. So we trace mass incarceration today, do you go all the way back to the prison drawings as another example of this duel legacy that stands in contrast to religious freedom and the Declaration of Independence? You gotta wrestle with this difficult knowledge anytime you talk about Thomas Jefferson. Let’s talk about violence is violence part of the plantation system is there violence here at Monticello? You contrast the case of Burwell Colbert who Jefferson’s longest serving overseers, Edmund Bacon said Jefferson told Edmund Bacon that Burwell Colbert was to be absolutely accepted from the whip. But how about other members of the Hemings family? Certainly many other people on the Monticello Plantation, talk about Jamie Hemings, Burwell Colbert’s cousin. Jamie Hemings was being trained to be a woodworker by a man named James Oldham. He’s free. He’s white. Jamie Hemings got really sick excused from work, but who encounters Jamie Hemings not working? A man named Gabriel Lily hired by Jefferson as the head overseer despite Lily’s reputation for violence. And Lily beats Jamie Hemings three times in one day with a whip to the point where he can’t defend himself. He almost takes his life in the process of a beating of a teenager who’s sick. James Oldham writes a letter to Jefferson about this incident. He says Lily is frequently drunk, prone to violence, probably stealing from you. And this is not the first but the most recent incident that Lily’s cruelty. Jefferson didn’t fire Gabriel Lily. Lily did leave over wages wanted more money than Jefferson was willing to pay Jefferson needing a new head overseer wrote his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph I can never get a man who fulfills my purpose better than Lily does. So was Jefferson aware of the foundation of slavery based on violence? Certainly he is. What do you think Jamie Hemings did after that beating? He ran away and this is very rare Jefferson actually allowed Jamie Hemings to run. That’s not typical. That’s very unusual. So we talk about these five people freed in Jefferson’s life time. Jamie Hemings, not legally but informally freed, plus Robert and James, and you may recall from Madison Hemings’ recollections that his brother and sister Beverly and Harriet were allowed to disappear as well. So those are the five people in Jefferson’s lifetime that we talked about. What do you think Jefferson’s attitude was about about freed blacks? Positive or negative? Negative? You know what he said? He says free blacks are pests upon society. But he’s also come up with this solution. Right? What’s his solution?

JP: You’re using air quotes.

DT: To have the enslaved population freed at some future date, but freed on the condition that they either be transported to the West Indies or to West Africa again. The whole American Colonization Society in Liberia, his solution because what does he believe that that people can live in freedom together? No. Why not?

DM: He talks about the memories. The boisterous passions that have developed between [1:05:00] masters and slaves. That would never prevent, uh permit them to live in harmony or reconciliation.

DT: So what do you think?

DM: I think it’s interesting that he also uses the term boisterous passions especially in this context. Jefferson for one of the most interesting things to me about him rhetorically is what he reveals and the implications of what he reveals on many occasions. Whether in word choice or syntax that perhaps he did not intend to.

DT: One does find themselves saying do you realize just how ironic what he said or how contradictory or or the conclusions that modern-day audiences make about this? So you really do it really does beg the question for us today what’s Jefferson saying? I mean should we be about proving Jefferson wrong that that conclusion was 100% wrong that in fact people can if they choose to do so tear down the barriers that they themselves erected? These are all human institutions, right? That’s part of the struggle that we deal with today is is this whole system of slavery and the Legacy that leaves us. If you believe that this is the case are your actions going to reinforce that idea? So you have to ask that question too. And you see you have the case of you know, you ever heard of someone called Gideon Granger? There’s a homework project. Gideon Granger was the Postmaster General of the United States appointed by Thomas Jefferson. You know what Gideon Granger’s first action was as Postmaster General? To fire every free black riding for the u.s. Postal system. Why did he do that? Jefferson’s giving him permission to do that he wrote a letter about it. I’m not going to quote the whole thing. I’ll give you the very end. He said and this because these free blacks are literate and they’re riding, delivering the mail he said they will learn that a man’s rights do not depend on his color. How’s that for a justification to fire someone? Because they’re going to learn that those rights apply to everyone regardless of the color of their skin?

DM: And that won’t be the first time that a person who represents a state fires blacks from federal positions.

DT: Certainly, we’ve got the case of Woodrow Wilson.

DM: Woodrow Wilson is one of the most famous cases of such. And again you then think about what work in the government does to help lay the groundwork for an upwardly mobile class?

JP: So quick question while we have the benefit of being in the bedroom. I wonder if you could maybe just describe what we’re seeing here and one question I had with a poor segue with boisterous passions is that the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings was clandestine. But like how did this work? Like did he sneak off and like do this whole thing?

DT: So first of all, where are? We’re in Jefferson’s bedchamber. So this is probably part of this three room private suite of Jefferson. His great Library, his office, he called that his cabinet with all these devices like the polygraph machine that makes a copy of every letter that Jefferson writes. We don’t know where Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson met each other where these pregnancies or these conceptions took place, but I will tell you this: There are seven independent ways in and out of this private Suite of rooms. Seven independent ways to get in and out of this set of rooms. Does that tell you something about Thomas Jefferson?

JP: Can we see some of the those?

[Other tour group speaking]

DM: The music room.

JP: Mhm. Are you okay on time?

DM: I’m not, I’m going to ask him. I need to be leaving by 2. You don’t have to interrupt the tour. I just need you to tell me when I should probably get back to get the bus. So as to be back by 2. Okay, thank you. 2:05 at the latest.

DT: So first off just take a look if you’ve been in the house, did you see these doors? Did you see how these doors operate? So let’s have another look but [1:10:00] can you imagine how many times Burwell Colbert closed these doors but he’s closing these doors into what I mean this really is a salon in Paris. That’s what it is. Jefferson’s recreating the Parisian Salon, a place of Music, a place of games, a place of art to spark conversation. He’s creating a whole world for himself because think about how strongly Jefferson and his family are influenced by the culture, the ideas, the food, the wine, of France. Then also Imagine who else is being influenced by France. James and Sally Hemings they’re there as well. And you recall from Madison Hemings recollections that that both James and Sally Hemings had they chosen to do so could have sued to become free legally free in France and yet both come back to America. Madison Hemings tells us it’s the treaty between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. We don’t know what James Hemings’ rationale was to to return perhaps it was an arrangement as well with Jefferson for some future freedom. And then the other thing I’m reminded of is that when Jefferson’s returning to the United States at 1789 which means what that the French Revolution has begun and staying in France as a free black at the beginning of the Revolution might have some downside because as we know later on Napoleon does do what? Reinstitutes the institution of slavery. So this is a very tumultuous a very risky fragile time. Question?

JP: Oh, um not at the moment. I mean a comment that that as a young person, uh, James and Sally Hemings, the assumption that one would just go out to free oneself to go to the local courthouse is a little bit. Yeah, you know in terms of saying, oh, well, they could have just wandered up to the courthouse and you know gained their freedom.

DT: That’s presuming that they had that knowledge. Madison says they did have that knowledge. But also to have gained freedom in France means freedom in France. It doesn’t mean freedom in the United States. It doesn’t mean you’re going to come free. What it also means if you stay in France, are you ever going to see your mom again? Are you ever going to see your family again? Are you ever going to see Virginia again? Even though you might be enslaved you can become attached to a physical place and think that it is home regardless of your circumstances. So I agree there’s a lot more to unpack than what today we can just well why didn’t they do that? They could have been free. It’s complicated when you start to break down all the parts of what Freedom meant in that sense as being free in Paris, but never being able to return in freedom to the United States.

[Group movement]

JP: Ah, the kitchen. The yellow right? It’s a really it’s just almost like glowing and it’s not even a sunny day. It’s quite overcast today.

[Overlapping conversation]

JP: Oh we need a picture. If only we could take a picture.

DT: Since you brought up the wall color, you want to talk about the wall color? Let’s do that.This is chrome yellow. It’s the first scientifically created paint pigment. So what’s Jefferson doing? This is not just fashion. This is science on display in a paint color. And of course, it does even on this cloudy rainy day make this room an inviting, bright place. It’s the dining room of Monticello, the food ways that Monticello became famous in Jefferson’s lifetime and that people write about even to the today talking about Jefferson is the first foodie in America. Let’s stop and think about that. Wait a minute who’s cooking the food? Who’s bringing the ideas? And combining the ideas of French, Virginia and West African food? It’s James Hemings. He’s combining all these three cultures into the food served at Monticello. He’s passing that knowledge on to his brother Peter Hemings and other people [1:15:00] Edith Fossett, I mentioned her name because she’s the wife of Joseph Fossett who’s also a member of the Hemings family. So the Hemings family in many ways are the pioneers of the food that Monticello becomes so famous for. There’s a restaurant here in Charlottesville called Fossetts. Who’s it named after Edith Fossett, Monticello’s cook in Jefferson’s retirement. Edith Fossett who is taught to be a French chef in the White House. James Hemings gains his freedom when he comes back to the United States. Of course, the capital is moving from New York to Philadelphia eventually to Washington DC but it was in Philadelphia when Jefferson served as Secretary of State and then resigned. James Hemings was there with him that entire time that Pennsylvania had outlawed slavery. So James Hemings, he could have stayed in Pennsylvania and been free back in the United States. He and Jefferson come to an agreement, a written document exists this agreement between James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson that if James Hemings will teach his skills the other members of the enslaved community that he will be legally freed and he is three years later after that agreement and then think about what happens. James Hemings he travels widely. That’s the family story that the even some people say he went back to France for a while. Eventually settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Jefferson becomes the president in 1801. He invites James Hemings to come to Washington to be the chef in the White House. But let’s talk about how that invitation is extended. Jefferson doesn’t go to Baltimore. Well, he’s the president he could understand that. He does send a third party to tell James Hemings to come to Washington to serve as the cook in the White House. James Hemings sends a message back to Thomas Jefferson his messages is this tell Mr. Jefferson I would like a few lines of engagement in his own handwriting. What’s James Hemings doing when he makes that statement? What’s he asking for?

DM: Respect.

DT: Respect. He’s free, he’s asking to be treated as a fellow human being, as an equal and also I think about this, who needs who? Who has the need? James Hemings or Thomas Jefferson? You know that Jefferson never wrote a letter back to James Hemings? He never extended that engagement in his own handwriting. James Hemings is back here, though in the summer of 1801 cooking at Monticello. Why would he come here but not go to the White House? He can see his family and was this an opportunity for James Hemings to see if he and Jefferson could in fact deal with one another on a basis of equality and mutual respect? Maybe so. And unfortunately, the next we know of James Hemings is a brief line from Jefferson. Jefferson went back to Washington, James Hemings went back to Baltimore around the holiday time of 1801. Jefferson writes a brief note that says he’s learned that James Hemings has committed an act of suicide at the age of 35. A French chef, a man who speaks and writes two languages, apparently takes his own life having just come home and seem his family. Do we know that he committed suicide? We don’t. Other things might have happened. But when I think about James Hemings and his journey, it does remind me that freedom in and of itself does not mean equality. How is he being treated even though he’s free?

[Group movement]

JP: We didn’t get to hear about the dumbwaiters, but that’s okay. Sorry.

[Group movement/chatter]

DT: Okay. All right. Let’s go through [1:20:00].

JP: We’re going through the back staircase here.

DT: Most people never get the opportunity to do this.

JP: It’s kind of a winding, cool corridor. Yeah. So this is one of the secret passageways? All right. Well this looks, yeah. Yeah, I guess so. Looks like it’s for staff. Yeah. Yeah, it smells it smells like someone’s cooking.

DT: Probably some of my colleagues enjoying lunch.

JP: Yeah, it’s that time.

DT: Yeah, let’s just sit down. Let me close these doors for a little privacy. Jefferson dies, when?

HC: July 4th, 1826.

JP: Nice. July 4th, 1826?

DT:  Which is… July 4th, 1826 is the 50th Independence Day. He dies $107,000 in debt. That works out to a kind of a low-end estimate is 4.3 million dollars. What does that that mean to Monticello’s enslaved community?

[Murmured answers]

DT: It means, that’s the auction block. I mean that’s a that’s that’s a dreaded possibility The auction block. Jefferson does free five people in his will so let’s talk about who he frees. He frees Burwell Colbert, Jefferson’s butler. He frees John Hemings, the master craftsman. He frees Joseph Fossett, Monticello’s blacksmith, the husband of Edith Fossett. And he frees Madison and Eston Hemings. Those are his sons with Sally Hemings. So between the five people in his lifetime and the five people in his will, ten total people are given their freedom. About six months after Jefferson’s death on a cold January day the 15th of January 1827, almost all the furniture of the Fine Art taken out of the house and 130 human beings are on the very same Auction Block with that furniture right on the west lawn of Monticello. So think of Joseph Fossett watching his pregnant wife and children sold before his eyes. Think about all the families. Are they being sold intact? In many cases they’re being broken up and sold to different owners owners who are going to take them out of Virginia. Separating these families potentially forever. So this whole world that Jefferson creates at Monticello comes crashing down. And for the enslaved community at Monticello this means that these families that had struggled to maintain themselves as intact families for so long and some cases well over 50 years are now facing a very unpleasant future. Where husbands and wives are separated, where children are sold from their parents with no recourse whatsoever. That’s the reality of the world that existed at Monticello that really ends for everyone. It ends for Jefferson’s daughter Martha as well, right? This whole world comes crashing down for everyone on the Monticello Plantation not the least of which is that enslaved community who had worked all their lives, who built the house, struggled in the fields, worked along Mulberry Row, find themselves on an auction block with the exception of those five people.

JP: You said they were with the furniture?

DT: Furniture and fine art on the very same auction block. So just think about that and think about auctioneer’s appraising human beings alongside a table and a chair. Setting a dollar value on the life of a human being [1:25:00] and people bidding on the lives of human beings and bidding on furniture the very same time. Let’s talk about what happened to some of the descendants of those once enslaved here at Monticello. I’m going to point out this portrait, but I’ll describe the individuals in the portrait and can you do you have a good visual? Can you see the images there? Let’s talk about the descendants of Madison and Eston Hemings. So again, these are, these the two sons, right? Oh Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson who are legally freed in Jefferson’s will. when Sally Hemings dies in 1835 Madison and Eston Hemings had families by that time. They had married they lived in the city of Charlottesville and then they decided to leave Charlottesville, because their mom’s dead right? What what reason do they have to leave to stay? And so they moved to Ohio. They moved to Chillicothe in the case of Eston Hemings and to Ross Pike County, Ohio in the case of Madison Hemings. And if you know your geography you’ve got Cincinnati and then Chillicothe and Ross Pike County there to the east. So this is there’s a huge Community from Cincinnati through Ross Pike County and Chillicothe of free people of color, right? They’re migrating across the Ohio River because Ohio’s are free state, right? So there’s huge community that gathers there and Madison and Eston Hemings become part of that Community. They’re both skilled woodworkers and the case of Eston Hemings, he’s a remarkably talented musician and traveled all over the State Ohio hired by free people of color by whites as well because of the how famous his band was. Eston Hemings left, Ohio in 1852. He moved to Madison, Wisconsin and changed his name from Hemings to Jefferson and he started to tell people that he was the son of Thomas Jefferson.

JP: And at this point was he passing?

DT: He’s passing when he goes to Madison, Wisconsin. He passes as white. So he made that choice. He brought his whole family to Ohio where they then passed as white. So is that an easy decision to make or a hard decision to make? What do you think? If you have to reinvent yourself and then deny who you were but also live in fear that someone might recognize who you were, right? Of course not everyone can make that choice. Eston Hemings can make that choice, but how about his brother Madison? Madison really can’t make that choice. Why? Because of the color of his skin and features.

JP: And you would have also had to be separated from your family kind of indefinitely if you’re passing for white and the rest of your family cannot do that.

DT: Absolutely. So just think about how hard a decision that must be I mean, you’re gaining advantages I suppose in your perception, but you’re leaving entire world behind in the process and that has consequences, right? You’re Reinventing yourself, but you’re Reinventing Yourself by destroying break burning all those relationships and bridges behind you. And they actually, both sides of the family, Madison Hemings descendants and Eston Hemings descendants as a result of that they completely lose touch with each other, right? They don’t, I mean they’re at the point where they don’t even know that the other family exists when you come down to the modern day. Uh, the gentleman in the lower left corner wearing the uniform of a colonel in the Union Army is John Wayles Jefferson. He is the grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. He’s the commanding officer of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. What does that mean? He is an African-American passing as white [1:30:00] commanding a white Infantry Regiment in the Civil War. What if he gets caught? Good idea, bad idea? Like way bad. One of his friends that he knew in Ohio before his father changed the name from Hemings to Jefferson sees him in the Civil War wearing that uniform. He’s been, he’s a successful Commander. He was wounded at Vicksburg, wounded it Corinth. he’s a decorated officer, loved, respected by his men and now this person from out of the past sees and recognizes him for who he really is. And that individual, this friend from from Chillicothe says that he won’t reveal the truth, allows him to continue. And he actually, John Wayles Jefferson actually said that he wasn’t afraid of any Confederate but he was afraid of what? Being discovered. So his secret is safe. In the middle right of that collage the gentleman on the left is Beverly Jefferson. So he’s the younger brother of John Wayles Jefferson. So he’s a grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as well. And three of his children are those young men to his right. Beverly Jefferson becomes a highly respected member of the community in Madison, Wisconsin. He owns two hotels owns a transportation business. Um, his sons and grandsons all become very successful doctors, lawyers, inventors living in the Upper Midwest, Madison, Wisconsin, Chicago and over the course of time the story of the family changes and changes and changes and changes and changes to where it’s almost completely erased. They mean, they keep that last name Jefferson, but they start they don’t even know by the 1960s and 70s that there’s any connection between Thomas Jefferson and their family and certainly the connection with Sally Hemings have been completely, right, lost over time until one descendant becomes interested in genealogy and then starts to make discoveries and then books are published. There’s a book by Fawn Brodie published in the 1970s and then Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking books about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the Hemings family and this descendant her name is Julia Westernen (?) suddenly realizes wait, there’s a whole story no one has told us and her brother is the person who provided a DNA sample in 1998. That did what? Scientifically connected these two families with each other. The woman in the lower right is Ellen Wayles Roberts. She is the granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and other descendants of Madison Hemings are in the middle left portrait and the top-left portrait is an image of the great grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. His name is Frederick Madison Roberts. So go anybody here shout out if you’ve heard of Frederick Madison Roberts. Well, let’s talk about him. He’s a pretty remarkable person. He goes to Colorado State, graduates from college, he’s a star athlete. He is the Headmaster, administrator of a school in Mississippi, but his family actually was from Los Angeles, California, and he went back home to Los Angeles to take over the family business along with his brother, but both of these gentlemen left the family business after a period of time. Frederick Madison Roberts in 1918 became the first African-American elected to the California state legislature. He’s a pioneer in America’s Civil Rights Movement. So this is the period of who people like W.E.B. Dubois, right? Booker T. Washington [1:35:00]. And he also plays a key role in the creation of a college out in California. He sponsors legislation, cosponsors legislation in 1919 to create a school in California. So we all think of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. Frederick Madison Roberts, the school that he helped to found every year California State Assembly offers a full scholarship in his name, a scholarship to a person of color. Who then attends for free UCLA. UCLA. He’s an amazing, amazing person Frederick Madison Roberts. So when we talk about legacy here at Monticello, you can trace that legacy all the way down to people like Frederick Madison Roberts and the descendants who were alive right there the photograph here of all these people. So when you take a look at that photograph, do you see African Americans? Do you see white people? Do you see people you can’t tell if they’re African-American and Hispanic or where they came from in the past? Who their ancestors were? Is that a portrait of what it’s like to be living in a diverse country called the United States? When you see all those people? All those people are related to each other. They’re all descendants. Every person is a Hemings descendant and Jefferson descendants as well. What do you think? All right, so we just we just unpacked the whole bunch of stuff. We’ve got kind of into the deep end of the swimming pool on some issues. And if you like, I’m more than happy to talk a little more anything on your mind. What else would you like to talk about? That you’d like to know more about or are you shellshocked or are you tired? Well now you I’m going to ask you questions.

JP: I do have a question ummm about uh the video. Um, the Sally hemings exhibit that a lot of the text was taken from Madison’s um correspondence and writing and if you could talk a bit about like the role of literacy and the fact that you know, um, we don’t have documents pertaining to Sally Hemings’ life, but Madison is that kind of critical link and and maybe how he learned how to write and and just the importance of literacy more generally?

DT: The words that we saw in the newly-opened exhibit dedicated to the life of Sally Hemings, uh are extracted from Madison Hemings’ interview, and that was done in 1873 for the Pike County Republican newspaper. That was the name of the newspaper. And so the editor, he actually interviewed many members of of the free black community who’d once been enslaved at Monticello. So Madison Hemings’ interview is not the only interview. He also interviewed um, Peter Fossett who was the son of Joseph Fossett and Edith Fossett at that time recording their memories, um and Israel Gillette as well another member of the enslaved community. And so the value of literacy and learning is certainly not lost on the members of the enslaved community here at Monticello or anyone else because they certainly, you know, Jefferson he’s not the only one here who understands that knowledge is power and that literacy and education becomes critical to people advancing themselves. And you know remember what is it the that Gideon Granger, what’s he say when he’s firing all those free blacks from the post office? They will learn that a man’s rights do not depend on his color. Even he recognizes the value of education, of course he wants if to not happen, right? [1:40:00] So there is a critical role seeing through the African American community, the free people of color and you know, the whole idea behind what when the NAACP is founded, what’s the whole idea behind it? What’s the main goal? Is to enable people to have access to an education and so that becomes and that really is ingrained in, I mean every parent wants their kid to get an education, right? Have any of you ever heard that from your moms and dads anything about, right? This is important. This is the way to get ahead. So I mean it’s ingrained in the culture, even though there’s sort of a counter-narrative too that discounts the value of education. So that’s a strange thing isn’t it? How these two things can be valued and then devalued at the very same time. I’m in favor of education myself because I think it’s a good thing. So I have trouble understanding those instances when when when it’s devalued. Have you ever had someone criticize you because you’re getting an education? Have you ever encounter that or is it just not something that you that you’ve experienced? Help me out here. I know it’s a tough question, isn’t it?

JP: Yeah are there any other questions? Um, Josh was your question about business kind of answered? You felt like that was good?

JSH: Yeah, and like, you know correlating that to just like so where do you like in your own words think like heavy confliction that Jefferson like has throughout history comes from like he knowingly knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he decides to go through with it. And I mean, there’s like certain examples where it’s kind of clear like debt or like it’s his own family but like it’s like, um this recurrence that’s kind of like confusing in a way that you don’t really understand like how he…?

DT: He’s a really difficult person to understand. I mean, you know I come up, I work here I mean, I’m here almost all the time. I talk about Jefferson all the time. I’ve read all the books, biographies, I’ve read all his writings. I’ve read people who are you know, thinking he’s the most wonderful thing and people are things most terrible thing. So all these various perspectives and where you wind up in my case anyway, is that Thomas Jefferson is genuinely a difficult person to understand. He’s very complex. He’s very conflicted. He is a person with a vision for the future who is very much living within his own time and in some ways you think about words of the Declaration of Independence used by others used by Abraham Lincoln, by Dr. Martin Luther King by Frederick Douglass, right? I mean his words do genuinely inspire people to go out and do wonderful great things and yet he’s the same person who wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, and those words are actually used by people to continue to try to rationalize inequality. So he’s really, I mean he really is a difficult person. He’s so complex. He is contradictory. I agree. Um, I would I would say that and this is just my opinion. I think Jefferson is one of those people who compartmentalizes things, right? He doesn’t synthesize and work through the contradiction. He just puts these little, right? He’s compartmentalizing these worlds that that he creates. He sees the, he knows the evil of slavery because he’s seen it. But whose, but is he benefiting from the system? I mean he is a bit, right? So so I sometimes tell people this: [1:45:00] principle and practice self-interest and self-sacrifice. Those are choices, right? They’re different things principle and practice. Sometimes your principles in your practice can be coincident. But sometimes what you say and what you do can be totally opposite, right? You hear someone say something and it’s wonderful and then you go out and you see that very same person do the opposite of what they just said; that’s Jefferson. And if he chose self-sacrifice over self-interest would this house exist? Maybe not. So yeah, I, it’s a really good question. Have you do you have any thoughts on how you reconcile Jefferson? Or do you just sort of say eh?

JSH: Yeah

DT: No, I’m with you because yeah, I mean I had that sort of textbook answer for you say oh here’s how it all works out, but I don’t because he’s, I think at least in my case I always find myself wanting Jefferson to be a better person than he is. He’s a really flawed human being. I mean he does really great things. I mean the whole idea of religious freedom. That’s, you know, they have to give Jefferson credit for that. I mean Jefferson you know, he talks about this wall of separation between church and state and what look at the arguments that are going on right now about church and state anybody see the Attorney General the other day Jeff Sessions? This whole task force he’s forming for for for what religious freedom? When I heard his words it didn’t sound to me like he was talking about religious freedom. What? And then you know, I mean think about the world in which we live in today. All right? Think you know, guess what? You know, what is it tomorrow is going to be the first of August. What’s going to happen on the 12th of August here in Charlottesville? Or at Lafayette Square outside the White House? I don’t know. I hope is not a repeat of last year, but were any of you here last year? Did you expect that was going to happen in Charlottesville? Which has its own history, it’s not always pleasant, but I didn’t think I’d see that happen. I live in Charlottesville. So, you know, this is happening in my city. And I see, I recognize people. That’s pretty scary. I didn’t feel very good that day. Did you feel good that day? Did you start to wonder what the heck is going on? So, is that a legacy? Tell me do we track all that back to the world of slavery? Yeah, I mean, I think it’s part of what we struggle with and some of it comes down to how many people have the moral courage to prove Jefferson wrong about his idea that whites and blacks could not exist together in freedom.

[1:49:03]

Melody Barnes

Interviewee:

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

Interview date:

Interview Summary:

Keywords:

Transcription:

Introductions

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You are going to be… I need to understand this. So, you’re the vice president of Monticello?

MELODY BARNES: I’m the Vice Chair of the Board. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Vice Chair of the Board. And then… that… you move from there to the chair of the board… Yes. And so, what is the work of the chair of the board? 

 MELODY BARNES: Well, the board is comprised of a number of really interesting people from all over the country. As you can imagine, a number are Virginians, but there are people from Texas and New York and the rest of the country and the board chair works very closely with Leslie Bowman who is the president of the foundation and her staff and the committee chairs as we think about everything from the grounds, to Jefferson scholarship, to the work that we are doing with the descendants of those who were enslaved at Monticello, thinking about new programming and executing on our strategic plan, which is to focus on what happened on the mountain but also to take that work off the mountain. So, for example, the big exhibit that Monticello did in D.C. a few years ago on the enslaved families and plans to take that abroad as well. 

Jefferson for our times

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. Okay. Yeah, this is exactly in keeping with what we at least one of our objectives and that is to make Jefferson live for our times, really. Which involves really detaching ourselves from the reverence that has surrounded Jefferson but not for purposes of desecration or demonization. We just want to say obviously this was a revolutionary thinker and we want to know what his revolutionary thinking means for us today and how we can make it live again. It’s something of an axiom both from especially for Jefferson scholars that he’s a revolutionary thinker but obviously one who could not bring himself to realize and extend forward those possibilities contained in that vision. So, that’s the long preamble just trying to let you settle in to ask: to what extent does he remain an important figure for us today? And what do we need to do to ensure that he remains an important figure and a touchable figure?  

MELODY BARNES: Right. One, I love that question. And for many reasons, that is the reason why I joined the board at Monticello because I think that Jefferson is critical for us and our understanding of Jefferson for us today because he represents both the challenge and the big thinking that I think is reflective of the country and the bold experiment that is the country. And many of the challenges that we are struggling with today. They are foundational. You could argue that they are part of our DNA, but that might reflect the fact that we think that they’re unchangeable or you could believe that they are…. They sit in the bone structure and we need to try and reshape the bone structure or the architecture of our founding ideals or the execution of our founding ideals. But I think if you look at Jefferson of, you know, the 17… the late 1800s early 1900s, you also then see the same challenges, the same problems, but also the same curiosity that exists in America today. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Oh, I just love that response and as a literary scholar I love the metaphors. The bone structure we’’re accustomed to hearing about the DNA but that it is in the bone structure. And if I heard you correctly then perhaps the bone structure may be more amenable to correction. 

MELODY BARNES: Yes, we can reset the bones. 

 DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So what…  

JAMES PERLA: A facelift maybe? 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So, what would resetting the bones… what would resetting the bone consist?  

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think the first thing that’s critical and again, this is why I think Monticello is important, why the study of Jefferson is important is because we have to understand the truth and all of it. wWe can no longer rely on symbols or myth and fantasy about what America was. And as a result of that, what America is today. My husband always cringes when I use this example, but I say if you really love… When you really love someone you don’t just think they are perfect. They may be perfect for you. But you understand their vulnerabilities, you understand their insecurities, you understand their flaws. So, I think for America, for the understanding of a constitutional republic, of liberal democracy, then the first thing we have to do is to get to the truth because ultimately then if we understand the truth and that history isn’t just something that’s dusty and old, but then we connect the dots through history to today, then we can understand what’s foundational to the challenges we face today and what has to be unearthed. And I also think that’s important because it’s critical to how we relate to one another as individuals, but also how we understand what’s systemic and what’s institutional. 

systematic vs. institutional change

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. So, what is… many people conflate those two: systemic and institutional. So, I’m curious how would you distinguish between them?  

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think about systems change. Well, one I think about institutions as some of the significant institutions that shape our polity. That shape our country, our society. Everything from the institutions of government and how they were formed and the rules and norms that shape and govern them, to the way that we think about our criminal justice system and that in those institutions and education institutions. And then I think about systems as the connective tissue among them. And if we can get into the system or the bloodstream that with our changes and our way forward, then we can start to, at scale, make larger changes and reforms to our democracy.  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: This is all just utterly fascinating I could hear you go on forever. So, I need to be… I need to be aware that we have a limited timeframe. But as I listen to you just now, I’m reminded of the fact that seldom do we acknowledge that the formation of this republic that there were changes going on all the time as this thing was forming and trying to come into being and yet we want to talk about it as if it is this rigid thing… Does not admit of any alteration, but alteration is actually its foundation too.  

MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and it I think it’s part of the beauty that is our constitutional republic and to your point people have to remember and understand this: the founders didn’t think that they were creating something that should be static or that was perfect. And their letters I think between Adams and Jefferson around the framing of the Constitution and the ratification of the Constitution and they were talking about the amendment process and you know and said, “If future generations see that we’ve got something wrong then change it they must.” And that’s what’s incumbent upon us and we’ve done that in significant ways and when it comes to issues of race, obviously the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment, you know, the Nineteenth Amendment that we’ll celebrate next year, the hundredth anniversary with regard to women. But then how we continue to execute on that whether it be through our laws, and policies, our practices, our norms, all of those things require us to think about how we meet the aspirations of the ideal.

to be of both Jefferson and Hemings

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I somehow wish we could be broadcasting this in all directions. Yes. So, to get a little bit then more specific though, I think will be returning to these issues throughout. We are preparing the second in this series of what will be six podcasts six episodes and we’re working on the Sally Hemings one. And when Ian Baucom was a candidate for the Dean of the College, I was on the search committee and he made a statement again and again during the interview process and since that we must become… not just be the University of Jefferson, we must become the University of Sally Hemings. And so, we’ve been asking other people variations on that question. What would that mean? What would that mean to have to consider both these two figures together, to think them together? To think them as inseparable? To think them as… that no accounting would be complete without trying to wrestle with Sally Hemings. However little we know about her as a figure, right? In fact, it is perhaps the fact that we know so little and she is shrouded in mystery and mystification and everybody’s representations, you know. Since if that’s all we have, how do we work with that? To think these two figures together, right?  

MELODY BARNES: I love this question and through the lens of Monticello, we think it’s so important and the opening of what we believed probably was her room. There were two rooms that we narrowed it down to and one of them that we thought okay, this could be it and the exhibit that opened to make sure that when people come to Monticello, yes, it was Jefferson’s home. But Jefferson did not live there alone nor was he able to do the good and the bad that happened there alone that there were over 600 enslaved men, women and children who were there. Sally Hemings being one of them. And A. literally the leveling of that mountain, the building of that house, the keeping and building of the farm, the plantation, all of that was because of all of the other people who were in labor there as slaves. Mixed with the ideas that Jefferson had about what he wanted to create and the ideas that he brought back there from all parts of the world. But to require us to understand that it wasn’t this one quote “great man”, but it was the intelligence and the ingenuity and the innovation of others who were of African descent who live there, requires us to understand that these are people who were three dimensional, that just as with today all of us, all of those stories are present and required. Which is also why when people say… some people say, “I don’t even understand why Monticello exists.” And my… in part my reaction to that is, “And so, you want to erase the Hemings family and the Graingers and the Faucets and the Herns?” And all of their stories which are also stories… They’re obviously stories of pain and hard labor and beatings and all the things that went into that but there are also stories about how men and women loved one another and took care of their children. The enslaved men who would walk miles every week to go visit the woman, the women that they consider to be their wives, even though the law didn’t, and to maintain and build those relationships. So, I think it’s critical to understand and Sally Hemings and in some ways she’s… I’m using her as a representation of all of those individuals, to understand the fulsomeness of American life… of African American family life to dispel and push back on the caricature of those individuals that even still exist today. So, it must be Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson if we’re going to wrap our arms around all of who we are as a culture and society.  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  I love that answer. It’s… it is absolutely the case and I want to return to the question of why does Monticello exist and should we just raze it to the ground? Because we are witnessing… Indeed, we are in the throes of that very impulse now and I am… I say something of a contrarian people look at me and are just scandalized by my saying, you know, “You can take these statues down. You can take all of these Confederate statue is down. You can change the name of every highway bearing the name of a confederate general, change the building of every racist university campus.” But you have to contend with the history, nonetheless. You simply cannot erase things. You simply cannot say now this is gone and we move on. This may be gone but we still live…. Alice Walker has wonderful line in a story. The dialogue is between two characters and one of them is from the North and one of them is from the South, so that schematic to begin with because a lot of racism happened in the North and so… But the character says well, you know what happened when you all took all the signs down? And the character says nothing happened. She says nothing happened. She says no. The signs had already done their work. The signs had already done their work. And so yes, it would be completely misguided to think that you could simply raze Monticello to the ground and that that even that would constitute some measure of justice for someone because we will still live with the residue of that hist… it is in our bone structure. That is absolutely the case. I don’t know if you are on Twitter…. are you on Twitter? 

Interpretive caricatures of the enslaved experience

MELODY BARNES: I am. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Okay. There was the most wonderful exchange between a friend of mine who is an historian and at Princeton, Tera Hunter and Nicole Hannah Jones this week. And, you know, one of these multi-thread things. So, it’s… so Hannah Jones… And Nicole Hannah Jones kicked it off by referring to enslaved people as commodities and property exclusively. That they were not in the eyes of slave holders human beings they were simply chattel. And so, Tera Hunter comes back with an equally lengthy, but deeply thoughtful and measured response. “No, these people were not just chattel. These people, whether the slaveholders wrote about them in this way, they valued enslave people for their skills, they valued them for their human sensibilities. After all, a lot of these people were entrusted with bringing up their own children.” So, you’re absolutely right. But all of this is to say we have kind of accommodated ourselves whether consciously or not to really caricatures… interpretive caricatures, you know, we are accustomed to saying under U.S. chattel slavery, they were just property. But there are so many more dimensions to the story than that. Whether or not those other dimensions are told to the extent that yes, they are there.  

MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and part of the archaeological work that’s taken place at Monticello tells us more and more and more about how the enslaved men, women and children lived. That there were marbles, there were… There’s evidence of how they might play. There was fiddling, there was musical talent and musical genius there. The work ethic that taking care of family and children, you know, the oral history that’s been handed down. I think part of the problem with trying to hold these individuals in a one dimensional plane is that it then connects dots to the one dimensional plane that society or some in society try to hold people of color in today. And to understand how these individuals lived and thought helps us to understand the fulsomeness. And I think one of the interesting things and this isn’t necessarily a Monticello story, but one of the interesting things that we know about those who were enslaved in parts of America is one of the first things that many of them did when they left the plantation was that they open savings accounts. Savings accounts and just A. the thinking that goes into that but it is also a reflection of hopefulness, of planning and then we see what happened, you know, post-Civil War and the leadership positions in communities and state legislatures…. Federal… So, we know that these were multi-dimensional, hard-working, thoughtful, deeply innovative people. So, let’s connect the dots as far as we can to understand that story and to tell that story which I think is critical not only for our all of our children to understand today, but for all of us to understand today from whence we came no matter who you are as a matter of race or ethnicity. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Absolutely. 

The life of sally hemings exhibit at Monticello

JAMES PERLA: I have a question to follow up briefly about the Hemings exhibit, maybe two questions. But first, I just want to get a little bit of context about the process of setting up the exhibit. We talked to Niya Bates also at Monticello and I just wanted maybe you to meditate a bit on what that process was like and why was it that you… that Monticello in particular chose to represent Hemings in the way that you did in that exhibit?  

MELODY BARNES: Sure. Well the evolution of the exhibit at Monticello… the exhibit about Sally Hemings’ life was a long one. And in some ways it has its roots in the response that was received to the restoration of Mulberry Row. The row of places where the enslaved families lived. And watching some people… Visitors walk in and look around and say, “Oh, well this wasn’t so bad,” which you know sends chills, you know through your body. So, one we wanted to think about how do we tell the story? Based on what we know and we don’t know a lot. There are no pictures that we can find. We can find written descriptions. And what we also had was the oral history and interview that one of her sons had done in an Ohio newspaper. So, using that, because we felt as though that gave us a lot of factual information that was firsthand and what we had from the records, we decided that the representation of Sally Hemings shouldn’t be an attempt at period restoration because we didn’t want the,”Oh, well this wasn’t so bad.”

JAMES PERLA: And by period restoration you mean like a reproduction of her room? 

MELODY BARNES:  Right, You know, sometimes, you know, you go to a historic home or you go to… Well, a historic home would be the best example and they try to recreate the bed or the pallet that the slaves slept in. That we didn’t want to do that. That we wanted to use the words of her son to tell that story. And that we wanted to create something that was deeply meditative for people with that information and we went back and forth and back and forth with a company that worked with us to help tell that story in that way. And for those who I hope will go to Monticello and see this.  I’m being careful. I don’t want to… I want them to respond. I want people to respond to what they see but I think it is done very simply. But I think it is also done very very powerfully. And I know the reaction I had when I first saw it before it opened. And I was with my husband and two other friends and literally tears were in all of our eyes when we left that room. And being there the day that it opened and watching people come out, you know, in silence people needed a place to just be and to think and to contemplate what they had witnessed and what they had read through… in those words. I feel it it ultimately was the powerful representation and the most honest and truthful interpretation of her life that we could possibly give.   

JAMES PERLA: For someone who might not… We’ve been. It’s fantastic but maybe for someone who might not be familiar with what the exhibit is. I think it’s notable that, you know, you walk into this, you know, there’s a buzz of activity going on around, you know, in the grounds and then you walk into this kind of quiet dark room. And so, could you maybe just describe… Maybe even your personal experience going through that and what that was like maybe on first viewing? 

MELODY BARNES: Sure. So, you… To visit you walk into a room that is one of the two rooms that we believe that she lived in and that’s as far as we could narrow it down. And when the door is closed you are in darkness as she would have been but for candlelight or, you know, fire at night and there is the words of her son as told through an interview that he did with the newspaper are projected and then an outline of her kind of… in silhouette again, because we don’t know what she looked like we don’t we have a basic description from the oral history. But we don’t have any pictures so we didn’t want to pretend like we knew or even that we know what Sally Hemings looks like. So, there’s a silhouette that takes you through her history when she first came as a child when she was in France and with Jefferson, which is… she was there to help take care of one of Jefferson’s daughter’s. The fact that she came back and she was pregnant. The exchange that she had with Jefferson about what her life would look like if she came back because at first she was not going to come back. Her brother was living in France and in France there was the opportunity for freedom, but ultimately did come back. And then the life that she had going forward there. Again, all through the words of her son projected on the wall. And I think also that when I describe her in silhouette, even that changes as you go through the different… the arc of her life as she was at Monticello. 

representation without information

JAMES PERLA: Sorry, final question at this point because we’re, you know, the notion of literary scholars I think is important and the role of representation because there’s so little information about Hemings herself. I wanted to ask… The sort of choice to make this sort of like a found poetry type of representation that is almost like a turn towards sort of a more abstract register to almost get to sort of the true story of Hemings the need to go through some type of representation that’s not necessarily a historical through and through a period piece or yeah. Does that question make sense? 

MELODY BARNES: I feel your question in my bones, but I might need… 

JAMES PERLA: I think another around this is the other day, Titus Kaphar gave a lecture at UVA Special Collections Library, and he hinted… I don’t know if this is officially, we’re supposed to say it… but he hinted at the possibility of showing some of his paintings at Monticello. Recently, there was a lot of buzz about a musical performance that you all did on the grounds of Monticello. And so, the role of sort of to animate and to show the humanity of enslaved peoples for whom we have very little information. The need to turn to the sort of gaps in the history and to sort of make that history have a sort of affective or emotional truth that is not represented in sort of historical information from the archives, which is obviously controlled by the sort of the…  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “The lions write history.” And so, the work of the lions is in the archives. Yeah, people who leave papers people who leave writings? Yes, if maybe if I’m understanding you… are you asking what do we gain? What do we lose? With having recourse only to representation? Is that?

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, I think so and the possibilities of because they’re so little information this choice to make it sort of this meditative, as you describe, this feeling where, you know, you don’t get the, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” You get the… the sort of feeling of what that was like and again that’s sort of because of the lack of information. So, I think yeah that yeah sort of helps … 

MELODY BARNES: It is and it’s a rich question there so many facets to it. I think one it forces us to wrestle with and look in the eye of the fact that we don’t have a lot of information. And that’s particularly interesting in this instance because it is Monticello and it is Jefferson and Jefferson wrote down everything. Everything. So, he leaves lots of detailed notes and the register of those who were enslaved there. There’s all of that. That he had the power, he could control that but for those who were enslaved they didn’t have that. So, what we have left behind are artifacts that have been uncovered as a result of archaeology and we have oral history and interviews by the descendants. And the oral history that we still have that we are still collecting at Monticello today of descendants. And so, that requires us, I think, to be very careful, to be thoughtful and to be responsible with… and accountable for how we are treating all of that information. Not making…  letting people interpret it to make and draw their assumptions. To put it in an historical context. When people go they will see a sign outside of her room about the issue of rape, recognizing the lack of agency that enslaved women had at that time, the fact that she was owned by someone. And at the same time, we want people to understand the humanity of those who were enslaved there. And that comes through, I believe, when you go on the tour because everyone has been trained to talk about the multidimensionality of those individuals. I know, I have friends… I went to Monticello as a kid and, you know, people either we didn’t talk about the slaves or we talked about them as servants or so there are euphemisms and now there’s very plain spoken language. These were enslaved people. This is what happened. This was the labor that burdened them. This is the way some of them died. This is the way many of them… Some of them tried to escape. This is what happened to some of them who tried to escape. And included in that is the representation of Sally Hemings’ life in a way that we hope people do feel deeply and we’re not trying to shape or impress a set of feelings upon people but we’re trying to give you as much as we possibly can as accurately as we can so that people walk away with an understanding of what this woman’s life was about and the facts that we have about her life and the lives of hundreds of others who lived there for… With good reason we talk a lot about Sally Hemings, but there were hundreds of others who live there and we have their  oral history and as much as the of the archaeological material as we possibly can to tell their stories as well.  

The spectrum of love

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I’m thinking there’s just so much resonance and what you’re saying. I want to go back to a few minutes ago. Well, no, I’ll come back to that later because I want to confront the question of rape and maybe then connect it to Sally Hemings in France because it’s so complicated from our contemporary perspective. Sally Hemings is fourteen. So, fourteen for us now is not the age of consent, but it would be anachronistic to say Sally Hemings was an underage girl that Jefferson raped and sexually exploited because fourteen-year-olds could be married in the 18th century. So, we are working with very different conceptions of childhood. In fact, indeed the reality that childhood as a category of human development is a very late phenomenon in human history. And so, we can’t say she was underage and yet we want to be able to capture that whether underage or not in the terms that the 18th century understood it, something happened to her and to her body that was wrong. So, we wrestle with the particularities of history, what history allows us to say if we’re being responsible, but it’s that… but what has to almost override it are the questions of morality because, you know, I’m reminded of, you know, Martin Luther King often made the distinction between man-made laws and moral laws, right? And so, this is analogous to that and so I was taken with the fact that both in the press, I read the review in the New York Times of the exhibition, and there on-site the the concept of rape is invoked, you know, unapologetically, right? And so, help us think about what brought you to that point even knowing that, well, how do you say it was rape? How do you know since so little is known about what passed between these people? How can you have conviction about whether that is the terminology you want to use?   

MELODY BARNES: Well, throughout the building of that exhibit and I even every time I use the word exhibit I cringe a little bit because it sounds…. It doesn’t hold the import of what this is. So, as we were thinking about how to share and represent the story of her life based on what we knew, we spend a lot of time with historians who are Jefferson-Hemings historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed, to help us work through all of the issues and what we knew, but I think what was most important to us was A. identifying the lack of agency that she… Sally Hemings had. Simply by virtue of being born into slavery. She could not control her own body, her destiny, her decision. She… by what we know of what happened in France, she was able to have a back-and-forth of some sort with Jefferson to try and shape what her life would look like and the life of her children when she returned, if she returned, when she returned to Monticello, but she couldn’t wake up and say, “You know what? I ain’t doing that.” She didn’t have those choices that we have today and because that includes control over her body, we felt that it was absolutely necessary. It would be irresponsible not to call that question and not to require those who visit that exhibit to look in the eye of what it would be like to have been Sally Hemings and that period of time and literally one of the most powerful men in the country owns you and what happens as a result of that. And the, you know, six children. I may be a little bit off right now that she carried and bore. We have to understand that as a country and I think it is also important in the same way people similarly as they walked through Mulberry Row and said, “Oh this wasn’t so bad.” We want people to understand just what it would mean to be an enslaved woman at that point in time. Also understanding and bringing in as much of the facts, and as you say the context, as we possibly could. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: It is vitally important and I think to impress that upon people is critical and yet there is always an “and yet” for speculative thinkers. And this is the “and yet” for me and it’s inspired by an account of another enslaved woman that literary historians have done lots of work to verify, to ascertain and that’s Harriet Jacobs who was owned by Dr. Flint in South Carolina. And she enters into a relationship with another white propertied man. He doesn’t own her but he’s a part of that class and she describes in the book: It is better to choose if you are going to enter into a relationship with someone who has overwhelming power over you. It is important to be able to choose that person. So, with Harriet Jacobs, whether we think it makes sense or not, in her mind, she’s making a choice. She’s making a choice to enter into a relationship with a white man to bear him two children, alright? So, I want to then go back to what you said much earlier about people who travel for miles and miles and miles to see their loved ones which establishes the fact that these were deeply feeling people who form deeply human, feeling, sustaining attachments, right? Toni Morrison writes about a character in Beloved, Sixo, who is in love with “the 30-Mile Woman” and he will walk 30 miles back and forth to be with that woman. So, that’s the depth of the love. So, then it brings us to the question, these are feeling people and feelings have a way of not yielding to human and social constructs. This is a long-winded preamble. I’m aware, but I’m intentionally being long-winded. So, Thomas Jefferson owns this woman. She has no agency. Certainly not under the law. Absolutely not. She can’t say, “I’m not doing this,” right?  But she bore him six children. It’s impossible in the discourse for us to think of that relationship as possibly admitting of love between these two people. When people want to say… I was once at my own dinner table in a conversation with Mia Bay and Mia Bay says, “Deborah. That’s impossible. You just can’t say that. It is just it is an insult to Sally Hemings and to all the other enslaved women.” And I said, “That’s not what I’m doing here.” I’m simply asking why has that been such an unthinkable proposition? Why is it impossible to enter the conversation? Because you can’t know what happened you simply cannot know. We don’t know. And so, people on both sides of the ideological divide, whether they are diehard Jeffersonians or defenders of Sally Hemings, say you can’t even broach the question of love in this situation. They just don’t. I can’t. Leave that away. Leave that alone. What can’t we broach that question?   

MELODY BARNES: Because of the horror that was slavery. Because of the genocide that was slavery. Because it was destructive in the most fundamental sense of the word that I believe it is hard to imagine that there is something loving that could have emanated from that and that’s why I believe it is so difficult, virtually impossible, to wrap your arms or your mind or your heart around that. Because it also I think it requires individuals to think someone that would buy and sell people, someone that would rip families apart, someone that would allow individuals to be beaten within an inch of their life, if not taking their life, someone who would see a person try to flee to freedom and send out slave catchers or an overseer to capture them and bring them back, how could that person also be in love with an enslaved person? Because if you love them wouldn’t you let them be free? So, that’s why I think it’s, you know, that idea kind of hits the mind and slides right off. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, I love that answer too and I especially love the thinking and the heart. You say, you know, in your thinking and in your heart you can’t admit of this. And I want to… James has heard me mentioned this many many times because, you know, I’m just I’m asking a different kind of question that may not always register as I intended and that’s in a failure of my own articulation, but I’m asking why can’t we think of this? Because children for example, who are abused, love the parents who abuse them. You know? That power in relationships is fundamental to relationships. I always joke and say people talk about how helpless infants have no power. Well, yeah in certain ways of understanding power, but if an infant is screaming to the top of that infant’s lung power at 3 a.m and will only stop if you walk back and forth rocking them, that infant has had the power to murder your sleep. So, this is all… and James has heard me use this analogy because, you know, as a person of my generation and my training so many of my references are literary references. And so, it’s so… Faulkner has this wonderful story in Go Down Moses and it’s a fictional character Ike McCaslin is in the commissary going over the ledgers much like Jefferson’s farm books. Everything is written down. So, gets to this point in the ledger where it says, and this is his grandfather, “Gave Eunice $1,000 upon the birth of her son.” So, Ike the grandson is saying, “What? He gave a slave woman $1000? There must have been some kind of love. Or something like love? She wasn’t just some afternoon spittoon?” But he doesn’t know what it is. But he’s saying there is something else that has to define this relationship. I don’t know what it is. Is it love? He’s not saying it is. And then Annette Gordon-Reed really kind of opens that door and then there are a lot of legal scholars Adrienne Davis is one of them. And Adrienne Davis has written and unearthed lots of instances of slaveholders, men of the planter class, who had long-term relationships with slave women. Some of them acknowledge those relationships, some of them… Yes. Some of them were common-law marriages. Some of them really left, bequeathed to these children property and such. And that the only time these men would be prosecuted for violating anti-miscegenation laws was when it could be determined that these were not fly-by-night relationships. That this is somebody I live with, I sleep with. I don’t just go through the back door and after two hours leave. So, we have all that evidence too. And I want to be… to make it clear. I’m with you. I understand people who do not want to say, “No, you couldn’t possibly love people when you do this to them. When you separate them from children, you… No. None of that is in the universe of love,” right? But the question is always… What do we lose when we can’t enter that conversation, even if we conclude well, this is not the kind of love I would want. This is a messed up, distorted, you know, abusive kind of love, so I don’t want any parts of it. But something… Something that had to be going on with these people that it lasted for as long as it did. Not just… he wasn’t making his way among the other women that he would have had access to. It was this woman. It was her.  

MELODY BARNES: Yeah, I think that those questions and so many others are inherent to our struggle in America to talk about and to wrestle with what we know about slavery and that period of American history and also how it shapes our conceptions of blackness and whiteness and the society that we live in today. I mean well…. It is just, you know, I don’t know the third rail or whatever, you know, we… Taking what we know, taking what we feel, taking who we are today and putting that all together to have a conversation and to engage in that and to let the mind wrap around that is something that I think is it is so difficult for us and that’s why I think we struggle to ask ourselves the questions that you’ve posed. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I get it. I completely get it. I understand why many people would greet such a question as offensive as misguided as, you know, what kind of monster are you to even formulate this question. I mean, really? 

MELODY BARNES: Are you trying to make it, make this better than it was?

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Not about making it better because again, I was so glad to hear you, this is slight a slight departure, but I’ll circle back, you know, well slavery wasn’t so bad. I mean that’s one of the criticisms I have had of many universities that are seeking to interrogate their slave past. There’s always some figure that’s been legendary in the recovery… For UVA, it’s the Henry the bell ringer. For William and Mary, it’s Lemon… Lemon the slave named “Lemon” and I say well, you know, this recovery process and this coming to terms with your own foundations and slavery and the profits that ensued there from, it’s as if well, these are all triumphalist stories. No matter what, Henry’s a slave, he rang the bell every day. He never missed a day of ringing the bell like, oh really? So, when I was asked to read at the dedication of Henry the bell ringer and I am like, “Mrs. Otis regrets that she’s unable to read today.” And I just resisted the explanation but the explanation was that. Because slavery was an institution that broke people, that undid people and that brokenness has been passed down from generation to generation to generation. But also with that brokenness, is the humanity you’re talking about. So, if these people have the capacity to love, the capacity to love is the capacity to love. It’s… I love the arguments people make in defense of members of the LGBTQ community. Love if you have that experience, you are among the fortunate of humanity. You can’t say you can love here but you can’t love there. 

Sexual Power Dynamics

JAMES PERLA: “Love Is Love.” 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “Love Is Love,” right? And so, it’s not about wanting to romanticize because even love is something that lives in history. We reduce love to the kind of, again, very modern phenomenon of romantic love, right? And I try to say that, you know, it’s yeah, romantic love no, I wouldn’t want to say… But something would explain why… Because it can’t be just sexual release. Rape is power. Rape isn’t even about sex. But you go to this same woman and you get six children with this woman. 

MELODY BARNES: One of the other reasons that people when hearing that still push back on it is that and this comes from the oral history as well, her son says that Jefferson didn’t… Essentially Jefferson didn’t treat us any differently than any other of the enslaved children. And so, if there had been more, why?… What I hear when I read that is why weren’t we treated differently, if we were his children? Why weren’t we treated better? And I just think that it is hard to… Impossible to imagine love as we conceive of it being a part of that relationship. I don’t know. I think that it requires us… What we can take and this is what we try to do was what we know of the time, what we know of her story as articulated by her son, understand the horror of that period and understand… Try to better understand what her life looked like. And, yeah. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I completely get it and it’s not speaking out of both sides of my mouth to say though that to the extent that we can’t broach this as the question then we really are wittingly or not basically continuing to perpetuate division. That hasn’t come out exactly as I want. And it would take me too long to interpret myself and you’ve already… We’re over the time you’ve allotted us. Yeah, we didn’t even ask most of the questions, but your answers were so fertile that I wanted to follow up on what you were saying. And again, as we wind down I think about Gayle Jones’s novel, Corrigedora. And it is about slavery in Brazil and Corrigedora is the name of the slaveholder and again the grandmother of the central character in the novel has passed down the stories about slavery and at one point the central character asks her mother who had asked her mother, you know, “What did you feel about Corregidora?” And she answers, “What I was taught to feel.” And that is very different. What I was taught to feel. What I was schooled to feel, right? So, we have all undergone a form of cultural tutelage and that tutelage has obligated us to a set of responses and reflexes and interpretations that we don’t want to let go of and it’s easy in one sense to keep them, “Oh, that? I know what that is. Let’s move on. That? Oh, yeah. I know what that. Let’s move on.” Mhm. And I think where the evidence is so thin, where so little is known, it seems to me when you open the door to speculation, you can open the door to speculation on a broad scale. Because you can say at one and the same time that something was going on that we don’t quite understand. And it was going on in the midst of brutality, in the midst of exploitation. I mean and that is the nature of life. I remember being also chastised when Marion Barry was convicted, you know, in the sting. And so, people well, they’re bringing down all our elected officials and they put black men under the greatest forms of surveillance. And I said, that’s true. But it is also true that he went into the Vista Hotel and smoked the crack pipe. Both of these things are true. [laughter] 

The Responsibility of Historically Violent Spaces

JAMES PERLA: Well, you have been very generous with your time and possibly, you know, final questions, you know, pending thoughts? Anything you want to say? Yes, I’m thinking to you know about this progressivist narrative and I’m not sure if we’ve had the opportunity to ask the question of, you know, what responsibility does an institution like UVA or other such institutions have if any to sort of these histories of violence? And to addressing these histories? During our interview with Niya Bates, she mentioned this great line during… from the president of the Ford Foundation who said that, you know, institutions, and this is paraphrasing, but institutions sort of have to be willing to give up certain, you know, things in order to for sort of the moral and human like realities of what it takes to address those legacies of violence and history. And so, yeah, wherever you find your way into that. What are our institutions willing to give up willing not to give up or what responsibilities do institutions such as these have to that history? 

MELODY BARNES: I think with with the University of Virginia and Monticello and in a different way, some ways the same, some ways different… If you’re in the education business, then you have to educate and that requires at its base telling as much of the truth as we know. To put as many of the facts that we have on the table and reverence, symbols…. They aren’t… They don’t help us in the long run. In fact, they are they are harmful because they allow us to perpetuate narratives that aren’t true. That it is possible and not only possible, it is necessary to tell the truth and to extract the positive from that. You know, Jefferson was founder to a university based on the idea that a democracy, a constitutional republic had to have an educated citizenry. Now, who he defined as who is a citizen and the treatment of those individuals is the ugly horrible part of the story that we also have to rectify but we can’t do that unless we tell all of the story and that is part of the education process. That’s part of what it requires to be in the education business and I believe that Monticello similarly has moved forward in ways that I think are so critically important. It’s why I joined the Board and could join the Board to help continue that work of telling the truth. And you can both talk about Jefferson and religious freedom, Jefferson as a deeply curious person, Jefferson as scientist. All of those things and also talk about what it means that Jefferson was a slaveholder and the contradiction in those things which I think is the contradiction that we still hold today. And it is important for us to tell the story of everyone who was there. Jefferson, his daughters, his wife who died young, and Sally Hemings, and all of those who are enslaved there if we’re going to understand all of that and what really happened. And that these things just didn’t kind of pop up like, “Oh, Monticello just appeared, you know, food it just appeared.” You know, I remember going in a house tour in Charleston, South Carolina and the tour guide said, described, you know, there were six slaves who lived here and then she described the architecture of the building and said, “But we don’t know how that happened.” What do you mean you don’t know how that happened? Of course, we know how that happened. So, it requires telling the entire set of… Putting all the facts on the table and I believe for the work that we are doing now and that I’m co-directing with the Democracy Initiative, that it is part and parcel of that. That for a public university that seeks to not only educate those who come here but to put information into the world that will improve not only our society but a global society, that it is important for us to take leadership, to take the helm of doing that at and to interrogate our assumptions. To interrogate what we know, the things we think we know and try to move forward with what is actually the truth and to share that in a way that people can understand and absorb it and that ultimately we can make our… Not only are our society here, but our global community better and stronger as a result of doing that work. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: That’s a wonderful point, perhaps on which to end. Unless you have something else you might want to add. Yeah. This is really been wonderful. As I said I could just listen to you forever.

MELODY BARNES: I’ve so enjoyed this conversation which I’ve been wanting to have for the longest time. I remember when they did the new faculty dinner, whatever that was and I saw you across the room and then the dinner ended and since then I’ve been thinking I’ve got to reach out because I wanted to get together.

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

Introductions

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.