LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Here in Washington, D.C., a new exhibition at the Smithsonian is inviting its visitors to reconsider what they know about Thomas Jefferson. It looks at life at Jefferson's estate, Monticello, through the eyes of the hundreds of human beings Jefferson owned.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the exhibition and came back with this report.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Walk into the giant marble shoebox that is the Smithsonian's Museum of American History and go to the second floor. Go past four chrome stools that black college students once sat in as they integrated a Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter. Just around the corner is this courtly gentleman.
DR. REX ELLIS: My name is Rex Ellis. I am the associate director for Curatorial Affairs of the African American Museum of History and Culture. We're getting ready to go through an exhibition called "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty."
BATES: Thomas Jefferson's very existence was shaped and enabled by slavery. Slaves placed newborn Thomas in his cradle and slaves comforted the former president on his deathbed. Ellis says people often wonder aloud how a man who dedicated his life to liberty on the one hand could hold slaves close to him with the other.
ELLIS: Throughout his lifetime he owned 607 enslaved men, women and children. That paradox is what we hope to discuss, talk about, and help visitors understand and move through in this exhibition.
BATES: The exhibition is here courtesy of the new Museum of African American History and Culture, which looks at American history from a black perspective.
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BATES: As a short video on black life at Monticello plays in the background, Ellis walks past scores of artifacts made on the premises by six enslaved families. Farm tools, wooden barrels, furniture and other implements were crafted by the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, the Hubbards and the Hemings. The Hemings are the best-known of the black Monticellans, because most historians now believe Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children. It's a point that still sparks heated dissent from a very vocal minority.
For a long time there was a lot of touchiness about the whole idea of Mr. Jefferson, the slave community, who might, might not have been related. Could this exhibition have been done 15, 20, 25 years ago?
ELLIS: Considering that there are those who have problems with this exhibition in 2012, I would say it that 15 years ago, it would have been pretty difficult to do something like this.
BATES: In fact, as we are talking, a bespectacled man in a blue blazer walks up to thank Ellis for his work. His name is Charles Shorter, and he has come looking for his Shorter ancestors, who are descendants of the Hemings clan.
CHARLES SHORTER: I'm looking around here trying to find the, you know, the family's been talking about - the Shorters this and that. And I'm walking around thinking, God, I can't find anything. and then I see Elizabeth Hemings, and I see her descendants and the ones who fought in the Civil War.
BATES: As Shorter continues to talk, Rex Ellis is moved, almost to tears.
SHORTER: And there is the picture of my great-great uncle and my great-grandfather.
ELLIS: Oh. Oh.
SHORTER: The Shorters are both there.
BATES: Charlie Shorter says he possesses several family documents handed down from the first Charles Shorter, for whom he is named that mention the Shorter-Hemings connection.
SHORTER: The family gave it all to me. We didn't believe, though, that the Shorters were descended from the Hemings. That was, you know, oh, apocryphal. Isn't it nice? That was a great story. And then we find out its true.
BATES: So, how does that feel?
SHORTER: I'm bursting, because this validates everything that I had been told, and now has been documented.
BATES: Wondering how a historian might feel, I called Peter Onof, who happens be the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He's seen the exhibition and says that its emphasis on Jefferson's relationship to his slaves is an important addition.
PROFESSOR PETER ONOF: I'm not a Jefferson critic. Obviously, I make a living doing Jefferson studies. But I think a balanced view of Jefferson is long overdue. And I think we're ready to move on from the obsession with his sex life, to get over the shock and horror that he was a slave owner, and try to make sense of him in his own time and place.
BATES: Which is exactly what Rex Ellis is trying to do.
ELLIS: We are looking at Jefferson, but more importantly to me, we are in some way acknowledging the 600 men, women and children who also a part of Jefferson's life.
BATES: Who, in fact, made Jefferson's life possible, which in turn, gave them a part in shaping early American history.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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