“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.
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.”
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.View Entire Story
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