Smithsonian Sheds Light On Founding Father's Slaves

Many Americans use Presidents' Day to reflect on the nation's core values, but the founding fathers often had complicated relationships with those ideals. A new exhibit explores that issue. "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello" highlights the lives of slaves owned by the third U.S. president and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Host Michel Martin speaks with the exhibition's lead curators.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It is Presidents' Day, a day to think about history and those who came before us. Later, we will hear from the Creole Choir of Cuba, who use their voices to lift up the stories and songs of their ancestors. We'll bring you an encore of a very special visit and performance by them in just a few minutes.

But, first, on this Presidents' Day, we want to tell you about a new Smithsonian exhibition that offers a valuable perspective on American history, a perspective which may be new to some. It is called "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello, Paradox of Liberty" and it explores the lives of the people held in slavery by Thomas Jefferson, the third president and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Those enslaved people included Sally Hemmings, the woman now believed to have been the mother of several of Jefferson's children and, of course, those children. The exhibition was brought together by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

With us now is historian Rex Ellis. He is the Smithsonian curator for the exhibition. Also joining us is Elizabeth Chew. She is a curator at Monticello, the historic Jefferson Plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and she co-curated the exhibition. They're both here with us in Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much for joining us - in your case, for making the trek.

ELIZABETH CHEW: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

REX ELLIS: And the same with me. A pleasure.

MARTIN: Rex Ellis, I want to start by suggesting - you may disagree with this premise - that the whole question of slavery in this country in general remains a sensitive topic with some people. We see moves, for example, to revise textbooks from time to time to change the discussion of slavery in this country. I wanted to ask, you know, how the exhibition explores this topic and does it explore it in a way that's different from many of the things that people may have seen before?

ELLIS: I think one of the things we try to do is to, number one, acknowledge at the non sequitur that is slavery, to try to allow our guests to understand that it is still an issue that really is very difficult to grasp, to understand, especially the fact that it was something that was so integral to the lives of those who were responsible for founding the country.

And so I think it is that paradox that - that's why we call it the paradox of liberty because it is that paradox that continues to be something that is not explained in ways that explains away the history, the fact that we were beginning to be a nation at a time when enslavement was a part of the national core of the nation. It did not go beyond anyone's understanding that here, British North America was asking for freedom from the mother country while holding slaves in the process.

MARTIN: I understand that the other - one of the things that may be different for some people about this exhibition is that it really tries to explore the lives of these enslaved people and explore them as people. I mean, very often, we see, you know, engravings or paintings or images and we see, like, groups of people working, but we don't know their names. We don't know how they lived.

And it's my understanding that one of the things about this exhibition is it tries to kind of lift up and lift out these people as individual people.

ELLIS: One of the very important things that we did was to acknowledge the wonderful research that had been done by Monticello. The amount of research that they have done to uncover the lives of the individuals who were enslaved at Monticello is simply unprecedented. I know of no other place that has that kind of comprehensive information and so we were allowed to provide a three dimensional look at the lives of many of the enslaved there in ways that we could not in any other way.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Chew, do you want to talk more about that?

CHEW: Sure. At Monticello, we've been working on slavery since the 1950s through archeology, through documentary history and through oral history. And so we have come to know a pretty sizeable percentage of the 600 people that Jefferson held in slavery over the course of his life as individuals. We know about their family connections. We know about husbands and wives and children. We have, in many cases, followed the families into the present day.

So we're able to present slavery to our visitors at Monticello and in our exhibition here in Washington as stories of people, not simply an abstract system, but stories of people who lived in and survived this system that denied their basic humanity.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of family connections, in 1998, scholars released results of DNA tests that confirmed that the descendents of Sally Hemmings were, in fact, related to Thomas Jefferson. It was rumored at the time and I think many historians - most historians agree now that Jefferson fathered those children. It's something that the Hemmings descendents have said for generations.

CHEW: That's right.

MARTIN: One of the things that I was curious about is - how has the discussion of this relationship changed over the time? I want to mention you've worked at Monticello for 12 years now. How has this discussion of this and the understanding of this relationship changed over the time that you've been working there?

CHEW: Right. If you look back at, you know, to the 1960s and '70s and how slavery was discussed at Monticello, there's a lot of passive voice. You know, food was brought from the kitchen to the dining room. The word servant was used and not slave. And the evolution has been gradual.

Today, we mention Sally Hemmings on every single tour of the Monticello house. Our interpretation - slavery is an integral part of how we discuss how the - I mean, it's hard to talk about a plantation without mentioning slavery and we think of and talk about Monticello as a plantation with the famous house at its center.

MARTIN: And can I just ask you this? There are - Sally Hemmings is perhaps the best known family line of the enslaved people held at Monticello, but there were other families, too. And I just wanted to know - can you just mention a couple of the others?

CHEW: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And are they represented in this exhibition?

CHEW: Yeah. Rex and I decided very early on to organize the exhibition around the stories of six families and the families are the Hemmings, the Herns, the Hubbards, the Gillettes, the Grangers and...

ELLIS: Fossetts.

CHEW: ...the Fossetts.

MARTIN: Rex, what are some of the objects that one might see if one were to visit this exhibition?

ELLIS: We have objects that relate to the life of Jefferson, as well as objects that were actually constructed by some of the enslaved. For instance, John Hemmings was a master carpenter and we have a revolving bookstand that John Hemmings made for Jefferson, who was such a voracious reader. We also have...

MARTIN: John Hemmings being Sally Hemmings' brother or son?

ELLIS: Her brother.

MARTIN: Her brother. OK.

ELLIS: Yes. And we have a variety of artifacts that relate to the kinds of tools that they used, the kinds of work that they did. For instance, we know that Edith Fossett worked at the White House, so we have some receptacles and some pots that she would have used. She learned French cooking there.

The Gillettes were coopers and they sort of made buckets and barrels and stuff.

MARTIN: And that was a specific skill, making those...

ELLIS: It was a specific skill.

MARTIN: ...buckets and barrels. Wow.

ELLIS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. On this Presidents' Day, we are talking about a new Smithsonian exhibition, "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello, Paradox of Liberty." Our guests are the co-curators, the historians, Elizabeth Chew, who's mainly at Monticello, and Rex Ellis, who is mainly at the Smithsonian, and they worked on this exhibition together.

Is there something that you just wish you had that's just making you crazy that you don't have?

CHEW: Well, one of the interesting parts of the exhibition is that the great majority of the objects that represent enslaved people are fragmentary. They are archeologically recovered pieces of plates and glasses and tools and that's because the material possessions of enslaved people just haven't survived to the degree that those of free people have. And to have things that weren't so fragmentary, I think, would be very important.

MARTIN: Like clothing, for example? Clothing or something like that.

ELLIS: Well, you know, one of my favorite stories is the story of a headstone that was carved by John Hemmings when his wife Priscilla passed away. We know that, as she was becoming more and more ill, that he actually read to her from the Bible. Man, I'd love to have the Bible or a Bible that sort of represents the Bible that he read from that we could sort of put there, as well. All we now have is the headstone, which gives you some sense of the story, but I'd love something that indicates the degree of faith that they depended on in their daily lives, so a Bible or something like that would do that in a way that I think speaks reams.

MARTIN: You know, that raises a question for me, which is - I think it may be a surprise to some people that John Hemmings could read or I think it may be a surprise that how many of the enslaved people were literate. Are there other things that you think people might be surprised by, Elizabeth Chew?

CHEW: One of the things that I like to talk about is the fact that enslaved people had access to ways of earning money and, through that, had access to consumer goods. At Monticello and across the South, slaves, on their own time, kept chicken yards and gardens and sold poultry, eggs and garden produce to the main house.

We, at Monticello, have account books documenting the white women of the big house buying things.

MARTIN: Now, was that different from Monticello - was that distinct for Monticello or was that something there...

CHEW: It was actually the case across the Chesapeake region.

MARTIN: Really?

CHEW: The wider region. And...

MARTIN: And people were allowed to keep their proceeds?

CHEW: They were, and we know that, on Sundays, they walked into town and spent this money with merchants in town and they bought things like ceramic tablewares, glassware, buckles and buttons for their clothing, probably nicer cloth than they were given by Jefferson to make clothes. And archeologists find the remains of these things in the ground at sites occupied by slaves across the Chesapeake region.

MARTIN: You know, Rex Ellis, I wanted to ask if there's anything at the exhibition that sheds light on something that's long been an issue in the African-American community. You know, to this day, there are sayings that it's not meant politely that references the understanding that people who lived in the big house and who served the big house had a different life from the people who served in the fields. OK? And that distinction is based on a presumption that people who worked in the house were favored versus people who worked in the fields.

But I wanted to ask if that assumption that people have is true and is there something in the exhibition that sheds light on whether people were treated very differently.

ELLIS: I think the proximity to the master - very, very important throughout the 18th century, but certainly at Monticello. Those who worked in the house as domestics certainly had a closer relationship in many ways.

Unfortunately, we know more about skilled laborers and those who worked in the house because Jefferson talked about them the most, because that's where most of the correspondence is. But we know very, very little about those who worked in the fields.

MARTIN: What's the chicken and what's the egg here? Did people work in the house because they were related to Jefferson or was it that they were related to Jefferson because they worked in the house?

ELLIS: We certainly know that - and I'll let Elizabeth answer this one, as well. We certainly know that there was a relationship and there was a privilege that the Hemmings family had and many of the Hemmingses worked in close proximity to Jefferson and they received a great deal of, I guess, privilege that some of the others did not. I think that was because of the relationship and because of the connection, but also, the Hemmings were the family that had been there the longest. What? Four, five generations of Hemmingses were at Monticello, so I think it had something to do with the relationship. I think it had something to do with the longevity of the family being on site, but I also think it had to do with the privilege that Jefferson extended to them because of who they were.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Chew, do you want to add anything?

CHEW: Yes. Jefferson definitely treated the Hemmingses differently from other families. All of the people who occupied the positions of greatest responsibility around Monticello, the enslaved people were members of the Hemmings family.

Of the 11 people Jefferson freed over the course of his life, both officially and unofficially, they were all Hemmings family members.

MARTIN: And to that end, though, Elizabeth, one of the things I wanted to ask you - Thomas Jefferson's ambivalence about slavery, if I can call it that - I don't know how ambivalent he was since he, you know, as has been noted, every bite of food that he took, every - you know, piece of his property had a hand of a slave on it, but his ambivalence about it in his writings, for example. It is reflected in his writings and in his politics and I just, you know, wonder if the exhibition offers clues, something that Mr. Ellis talked about to begin with, which is how does a man who so loved freedom continue to rely so heavily on enslavement for his lifestyle throughout his entire life? I mean, is there any clue shed on that? I mean, it is a conundrum, isn't it?

CHEW: It is a huge conundrum and we try to talk in the exhibition about Jefferson's views on slavery in a very frank way. Jefferson, over the course of his entire life, wrote about his hatred for slavery. He called it an abominable crime, a deplorable entanglement, yet slavery created the world that Thomas Jefferson knew. Jefferson wrote and said and, as a young man, worked against slavery, but ultimately was someone who did not disentangle himself from this system.

MARTIN: Well, the exhibition has been open just for a couple of weeks now and I'm imagining that, perhaps, this being a holiday weekend, many people might take an opportunity to see it. What are people telling you about how they're reacting to it over the time that it's been open?

CHEW: One of the things we keep hearing is how diverse the audience is in terms of age, race - that there are family groups together and they're really stopping to discuss things. There are a couple of interactive moments in the exhibition where we ask questions about running away or not running away or choosing to pass as white if you were a light-skinned African-American person. And we hear that people are really discussing these, which I find very gratifying.

MARTIN: Rex Ellis, anything you want to add?

ELLIS: Well, I just think that people are - you know, it's interesting. People, I think, are ready to hear what we have to say and I think they are ready to see a three dimensional look at an enslaved community. One of the things that, again, the great research that's been done allows us to do is to create three dimensional characters, people that had lives, people who valued education, people who valued faith, people who looked at civic justice and their participation in civic justice very, very seriously.

You will find that, as the descendents moved forward, that the things that sort of began with communities - enslaved communities and communities at Monticello - continued in terms of their seeking of faith or their seeking of education or their participation in the Underground Railroad, for instance, or in civic engagement in other ways.

You see that legacy continuing, so I think, hopefully, the visitor sees that, understands the importance of it and understands the importance of being able to see, not just a moment in time, but time moving forward in terms of the descendents and their representation of the legacy of the enslaved at Monticello.

MARTIN: Why do you think that's important?

ELLIS: I think people want to be able to connect and I think that knowing and seeing things that relate to contemporary life in ways that make that connection, that follow that continuum, I think is very, very affirming for a number. Then history is not a mystery. Then history is not something that's isolated. History becomes something that's alive and something that they can touch in ways that they can't if it remains in a particular period and isolated in a particular way.

MARTIN: Historian Rex Ellis is a curator for the Smithsonian Institution. Elizabeth Chew is a curator at Monticello, the historic plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, our third president. They work together on a new exhibition, "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello, Paradox of Liberty." It is on display now at the National Museum of American History here in Washington, D.C. The exhibition will be on display through October and they were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for joining us on this Presidents' Day.

CHEW: Thank you very much.

ELLIS: Our pleasure.

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