National Museum of African American History and Culture Exhibition Examines Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello will present “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” an exhibition of artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collections and from excavations at Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. The exhibition will be on view in the NMAAHC Gallery in the National Museum of American History from Jan. 27 through Oct. 14, 2012.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. An age inspired by a revolution for freedom and independence was also a time of slavery. Twenty-eight percent of the American population was enslaved in 1790.
The exhibition will provide a rare and detailed look at the lives of six slave families living at Monticello—the Hemings, the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers and the Hubbard brothers. Visitors will come to know these families through personal belongings and working tools, including scythes to cut wheat, axes, wheel jacks used to replace a wagon wheel, stoneware jars and carpentry tools as well as tableware, children’s toys and accessories such as shoe buckles. In addition to the physical objects, the research gives a record of the families’ connections to one another, their religious faith and their efforts to pursue literacy and freedom.
“Understanding the details of the lives of enslaved people adds to our understanding of history and our understanding of race relations today,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of the museum. “We cannot have a clear view of Jefferson, or the founding of our nation, if we leave slavery out of the story.”
“As a result of Jefferson’s assiduous record-keeping, augmented by 50 years of modern scholarly research, Monticello is the best-documented, best-preserved and best-studied plantation in North America,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Through our partnership, Monticello and the Smithsonian have a unique opportunity to discuss slavery as the unresolved issue of the American Revolution and to offer Jefferson and Monticello as a window into the unfulfilled promise of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”
A focal point of the exhibition will be archeological artifacts that belonged to enslaved families at Monticello. Among the objects will be:
Jefferson’s portable desk, made by Benjamin Randolph, Philadelphia, 1776, on which he wrote a “rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence (from the National Museum of American History collection)
Ceramic tableware and wine bottles from Shadwell, the tobacco plantation of Jefferson’s parents, later named Monticello by Jefferson
The headstone of Priscilla Hemmings (Sally’s sister-in-law and nursemaid to Jefferson’s grandchildren, ca. 1776–1830)
Bill of sale for a “negro girl slave named Clary,” for 50 pounds (from the NMAAHC collection)
Cast-iron cooking pot and kitchen utensils from Mulberry Row (the road encircling the Monticello house). Jefferson provided each family with weekly rations of cornmeal, pork or pickled beef and four salted fish, which had to be supplemented with the food that the enslaved families grew
Personal items from slaves such as toothbrushes made with bone handles, combs, metal buttons and shoe and clothing buckles and jewelry
A mahogany chair (ca. 1817), a copy of the French chairs in the Monticello house and a hanging cupboard (ca. 1820) probably made by John Hemmings
“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” is presented NMAAHC in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. The exhibition is co-curated by Rex Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs at NMAAHC, and Elizabeth Chew, curator at Monticello. Objects in the exhibition come from Monticello and two Smithsonian museums—African American History and Culture and American History.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in 2003 by an Act of Congress, making it the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum. Scheduled for completion in
2015, it will be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on a five-acre tract adjacent to the Washington Monument. Currently, during the pre-building phase, the museum is producing publications, hosting public programs and assembling collections. It is presenting exhibitions at other museums across the country and at its own gallery in the National Museum of American History. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation was incorporated in 1923 to preserve Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Va. Monticello is recognized as a National Historic Landmark and a United Nations World Heritage Site. As a private, nonprofit organization, the Foundation receives no regular federal or state budget support for its twofold mission of preservation and education. About 450,000 people visit Monticello each year. For information, visit www.monticello.org.
Note: The Hemings family members spelled their name with one or two “m”s. The Smithsonian and Monticello use the spelling that the individuals used. If there is no record, the single “m” is used.
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