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New exhibit explores Jefferson's slave ownership

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Having such an exhibit at the Smithsonian is a breakthrough, he said, because it's past time for more people to know about Jefferson's history with slavery.

"This is a great catalyst for conversation," he said, standing near a bronze statue of Jefferson. "It's really hard for people to understand slavery and Thomas Jefferson. He was a president, why couldn't he set them free?"

"This helps enlighten people about ... how complex it was." Bill Webb of New York City learned only in 2006 that his ancestor Brown Colbert was a slave connected to Monticello as the grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, Sally Hemings' mother - a discovery he called "mind blowing."

"On any research that you do, I think it's exciting. But with slavery, it's certainly disturbing sometimes," he said. "But it's fact. It's good to know from whence one comes."

As for Jefferson, Webb said he was "a product of his time." Until the mid-1980s, Monticello avoided the difficult topic of slavery.

But decades of research and archaeology at the site, along with an oral history project begun in 1993 with descendants of slaves, helped piece together a fuller picture of slave life, said Monticello Curator Elizabeth Chew.

"Twenty years ago, we could not have done this show," she said. Smithsonian Curator Rex Ellis said understanding Jefferson's place in history requires a deeper understanding of his entanglement with 607 enslaved men, women and children.

"We have to give voice to them," Ellis said. "They represent the community who brought him to his father on a pillow when he was born to those who adjusted the pillow under his head when he died."

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