Monticello: More of the Story

October 07, 2019  •  1 Comment

When my friend Pat Bradford suggested a road trip to Monticello with her husband, Bruce, I accepted immediately. But I was a little nervous. Pat and Bruce are African-American. I am not. I knew that Monticello in recent years had moved to acknowledge and include the history of all residents of Thomas Jefferson's plantation, the black and the white, the enslaved and the free. Would I find it embarrassing to see and hear this history along with Pat and Bruce? Would they find me embarrassing? I didn't know. I could only trust Pat. 

I've known her since 2006, when I made a late-career switch from writing and journalism to teaching in the public schools of Prince George's County, MD. Pat and I were in the English Department at Central High School. She had a classroom down the hall from mine, and she helped me survive. She told me what to do when most of my class flunked the first exam I gave them (give them another exam, quickly) and what I could do if a student absolutely refused to quiet down. ("You can send them down to my classroom and let them sit with my class for the rest of the period," she said.) Pat is a proud African-American, and she is also a woman who looks for the good in every individual. I was fortunate that she found enough good in a 57-year-old white man presuming to teach reading and grammar to black adolescents that she made me her mentee, and her friend.

Over the years since we both retired, we've stayed in touch. Pat organizes a symposium on James Baldwin each year at her church in southeast Washington. Each year I come and help her out by doing things like leading a discussion group. We'd not made a road trip together, but it turned out to be easy. I picked Pat and Bruce up at 8 in the morning, and Pat and I chatted while Bruce amiably occupied the back seat.

We arrived before 11 and Bruce bought my ticket. Monticello does a very efficient job of shepherding visitors through Jefferson's house, and one of its methods is time-stamped tickets. Our ticket put us in a group that would go into the house at 12:50. That gave us time to take the separate "Slavery at Monticello" tour that began at 11:30.  The starting point is a replica of the one-room slave cabin occupied by the Hemings family, the most historically prominent members of the slave community that worked at Monticello. The cabin is very likely a good replica. It was built on foundation stones that remained in the ground many decades after the original cabin disappeared, and it conforms to the detailed plans and notes Jefferson kept for every structure at Monticello. The interior of the replica cabin is at right. Maybe the contrast between it and the big house, pictured at the top of this post, will suggest the disparities of wealth and power at Monticello.

It turned out that Pat had a nuanced view of slavery. She and Bruce have traveled to much of the world; they'd just returned from a trip to Egypt, where slave labor built the pyramids. She knows that many cultures have featured some form of slavery, and that there can be degrees of evil in any system of forced labor.

Our docent spoke plainly of the history that Monticello now acknowledges, including the fact that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with a woman who was his property, Sally Hemings. 

It was very different from the first time I visited Monticello, about fifty years ago, when I was a student at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. I remember genteel Charlottesville ladies acting as guides, pointing out in soft Southern tones the evidence of his genius, like the device he invented for making a copy of every letter he wrote with his quill pen. Sally Hemings was not mentioned then in Monticello tours. Slavery barely was at all.

This reverence extended to the University, which Jefferson founded in 1819 as the project of his old age. He was referred to in most circumstances as "Mr. Jefferson."  I worked for the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily,and every day atop the masthead, we ran a quote from a letter Jefferson wrote about the University: "For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." I saw it as a kind of warning to University administrators. If they tried to impose some sort of censoring governing board on the paper, which they occasionally contemplated, we would have Mr. Jefferson on our side in fighting them. That was powerful juju at UVA in the 1960s. (Nowadays, if the University president quotes Jefferson in a speech, there are angry protests about it from teachers and students who believe Jefferson deserves no more respect that any other racist.)

There is still some reverence for Mr. Jefferson inherent in a Monticello tour. The picture on the left shows towheaded children at a table in a Monticello sideyard, learning to use a quill pen by copying phrases from the Declaration of Independence. Visitors still see the alcove bed where he slept, his collection of antlers from American animals and the seven-day clock he invented to tell both the day and the time. Inside the house, he still tends to be the Sage of Monticello. But down on Mulberry Row, where the house slaves and enslaved craftsmen were quartered, there is little or no reverence.

On Mulberry Row, we heard about the careful records Jefferson kept. They included instances where a slave who persisted in running away would be whipped--not by Jefferson himself, but by an overseer. If the whipping didn't end the rebelliousness, the slave's name disappeared from the records, presumably because he was sold, perhaps to the deeper South, where the work was harsher. On the other hand, we heard that there were degrees of enslavement at Monticello. One of Jefferson's paid overseers was a black slave. He got a lower salary than white overseers did, but he was nonetheless paid. Other slaves were allowed to work for wages on a lease basis in Charlottesville or other plantations, and they could keep a percentage of their earnings. Jefferson evidently believed in giving people, including his slaves, incentives to make them work hard.

The docents dealt with Jefferson's attitudes toward race by quoting from his contradictory writings on the subject. He seemed to understood that slavery was wrong, yet continued to own slaves until he died. He wrote that he believed blacks were inferior to whites, but he understood that the reason for this might lie in the generations of bondage and oppression which they suffered. Ultimately, it seemed to me, he lived as a hypocrite because he could not afford the lifestyle he wanted, with its French wines, science experiments, books and entertainments, without his slaves. He was a self-indulgent man.

Monticello deals with Sally Hemings these days by giving credence to the sources that once were scoffed at by "reputable" historians. One such source is an interview her son, Madison, gave to an Ohio newspaper in 1873, describing what the family knew about the relationship. In Madison's telling, Sally was taken to France by Jefferson when she was 14 or so, to serve as a maid to his two daughters. At 16, pregnant, she could have remained in Paris and been a free woman, though how she would have made a living is hard to imagine. So she bargained with Jefferson. She would return to Virginia as a slave as long as he promised that her children would be free. The child she was carrying then died in infancy, but she bore five more of Jefferson's children over the years, four of whom grew to adulthood. In Jefferson's will they were in fact emancipated. Sally Hemings was never technically emancipated, but she was "given her time," by Jefferson's heirs, and spent the last decade or so of her life living with two of her children as free people in Charlottesville.

But neither Madison Hemings nor anyone else could profess to know what Sally Hemings thought about the man who fathered her children, nor what Jefferson thought about Sally. They carried that knowledge to their graves.

Bruce Bradford came to Monticello leaning toward the rape theory of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship. After the tour, he said he thought it might have been more complicated than that. Pat Bradford was, as ever, inclined to look for the good in people. She thought there might have been at least a small part of romance in the relationship. Mainly, she was just happy to see the history of African-Americans finally included at Monticello. After she got home, she posted this on Facebook:

"Today was a righteous day! Thank you, Monticello, for bearing witness to our rich history--not perfect, just human, factual, and finally, fair. Unforgettable!"

I was glad I went.





Frank Van Riper(non-registered)
Wonderful job, Bob...This is the kind of narrative journalism that brings history alive. You weave historical facts with the leavening presence of you and your friends. Your kids at Central High School would have loved reading this, I suspect. Ben fatto, amico mio...FVR
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