NATION

New exhibit explores Jefferson's slave ownership

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A portion of the exhibit devoted to the Hemings-Jefferson story marks the first time the subject has been presented on the National Mall.

Curators stopped short of making a definitive statement in the exhibit about the relationship, but they wrote that it was likely an intimate one, based on documentary and genetic evidence.

"On the one hand it's not a breakthrough for scholars. We've known this for a long time," Bunch said. "I think that the public is still trying to understand it."

Many artifacts, including tools and kitchen ceramics, are on public view for the first time, exploring the work and lives of slave families who lived on Jefferson's plantation.

Among the pieces on display is a hand-crafted chair built by John Hemings, Sally Hemings' brother, to replicate a set of French chairs at Monticello.

While such items may have been seen by 450,000 people a year at Monticello, they are accessible to millions of visitors at the Smithsonian, curators said.

In the exhibit, oral histories from descendants of Jefferson's slaves reveal stories passed down through families for generations, along with detailed records kept by Jefferson.

For example, Jefferson bought George and Ursula Granger and their sons as slaves in 1773, and Ursula became a "favorite housewoman" of his wife.

Jefferson eventually made George Granger the overseer of Monticello, the only slave to rise to that position and receive an annual wage.

Later, the first baby born in the White House was the son of Wormley and Ursula Hughes, who belonged to Jefferson.

"We can begin to understand slavery, not as an abstraction but through the stories of individuals and families who were surviving within a system that denied their humanity," said Leslie Green Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation that runs Monticello.

A related website will showcase the "Getting Word" oral history project. Curators also explore the importance of slavery in early U.S. history and Jefferson's views on enslavement, which he called an "abominable crime."

The small laptop portable desk he used to draft the Declaration of Independence is placed front and center in the exhibit, borrowed from the Smithsonian's permanent presidential gallery.

Shannon Lanier, 32, of New York City, a ninth generation descendant of Jefferson and Hemings through their son Madison Hemings, said he has known about his ancestors for years from stories told by his mother and grandmother.

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