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