Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello

How could the father of American liberty also be the father of several children with his slave, Sally Hemings? It is only in recent years that museums and historical sites have engaged visitors in open and frank conversations about slavery in America and its legacy. At Monticello, the home and plantation belonging to Thomas Jefferson, the topic of slavery in relation to the revered founding father's beliefs on human liberty had become an increasingly uncomfortable paradox.

We worked closely with the Monticello team to not only elucidate the facts and figures of the plantation’s enslaved community, but also to add a human dimension to the Monticello narrative. Through a series of three online exhibits, the lives of hundreds of individuals are illuminated through excavations of where they lived and worked, photos and interviews with their descendants, and interpretive text exploring themes such as resistance, religion, and race. Designed to complement the physical exhibitions at Monticello and at the Smithsonian, and align with Monticello.org, the online exhibits immerse visitors in a multitude of stories, the lost spaces of Mulberry Row, and the diaspora of Monticello’s descendants.

One of these exhibits is Getting Word. Beginning in 1993, Monticello embarked on an ambitious project to trace and collect the stories of those descended from Monticello's enslaved families. Since then, over 170 individuals have contributed their stories, which are now highlighted on the website. Stories range from that of a direct descendant of Jefferson speaking about the legacy of silence that surrounded her family and how that silence was overcome, to a man who can trace his lineage to an enslaved foreman and domestic servant, who shares his thoughts on the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

Together, the three websites provide new perspectives and research that enables historians, descendants, and the general public to engage in a continuing dialogue on the complex legacy of those who lived at Monticello and worked for Thomas Jefferson.