A history that was always known by Black communities is displayed in Paradox of Liberty — the history of the generations of enslaved families who lived, loved, worked, suffered, and died on plantations like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello is at its final stop in Richmond’s Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia (BHMVA), after being hosted by six previous museums. The exhibition’s stay in Richmond, which began in January, was extended through November 28 after the museum was forced to close in March due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The museum has reopened with pandemic safety measures, said Adele Johnson, director of the BHMVA. The museum limits the number of visitors to ensure social distancing, takes temperatures, and provides gloves for visitors to interact with exhibition touchscreens. Johnson said the museum will begin creating a virtual tour of all its exhibitions this week, and she said that she hopes visitors will continue to explore the previously unheard perspectives and history of enslaved people at the museum, including the 607 enslaved at Monticello.
“When you see the board that lists those 607 names, it is startling and it’s sad, but it also teaches you something too — that these are people, these are stories that could have been lost, but now they’re brought forward,” Johnson said. “We tell people that this gives the enslaved community at Monticello a voice to share with their descendants.”
The exhibition, the culmination of half a century of archaeological work, curation, and collection of oral histories by Monticello, tells the stories of six enslaved families and the triumphs of their descendants: the Hemingses, the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, and the Hubbards.
The people who were enslaved at Monticello are a lingering presence in the exhibition through the over 300 objects they once owned. Toothbrushes, combs, china dishware, tools, and game pieces show modern audiences that their lives were marked by the same experiences of familial love, work, and play as the exhibition’s modern audience.
“They were real people who experienced the full range of emotions just as we did, who got up and brushed their teeth and combed their hair, played with their children, and used tools to build things and make things. Not only build Monticello, but build America,” said Gayle Jessup White, Monticello’s community engagement officer and a Hemings family and Jefferson descendant. “I’m so moved by the simple objects. Those are the objects that make my heart pound because I think, ‘Gosh, maybe my great-great grandmother felt that object. Maybe she combed her child’s hair with that comb.’”
But objects like a bucket of nails, to Johnson, showcase the harsh reality of life for the enslaved on the plantation — children, before they were assigned permanent tasks, hauled 10-pound buckets from the nailery for hours on end.
Emilie Johnson, a curator at Monticello who worked on the exhibition, said the objects on display are powerful tools that connect people across time. With the help of Jefferson’s records, letters from his family and the recollections of four men — Madison Hemings, Isaac Granger Jefferson, Peter Fossett, and Israel Gillette Jefferson, who were once enslaved at Monticello — Emilie and other historians can piece together the lives of enslaved families.
One tiny, but very powerful object on display, Emilie said, is a piece of slate and a pencil found in the Fossett family’s belongings. Only a few people who were enslaved at Monticello could read or write, said Emilie, but one was Peter Hemings. Hemings was a master carpenter who was often sent away to work and separated from his wife, Priscilla, who was owned by another household. Peter would include messages to his wife in his letters to Jefferson.
The slate fragment and pencil represent, to Emilie, the efforts of the families to preserve their relationships and strive for freedom. Peter Fossett, one of the four who would eventually share a recollection of life as a slave at Monticello, could have been the owner of the slate and pencil. He began learning to read and write before he was sold at 11, after Jefferson’s death. Fossett was eventually able to write “free papers” for his sister, Isabella, who used them to escape slavery in Boston, Emilie said.
“This object, this little, tiny, small thing, is so emblematic to me for what the lengths that people went to, to resist the dehumanizing effects of slavery,” Emilie said.
During the exhibition’s stay in Richmond, the BHMVA’s curators created a list of questions for Paradox of Liberty’s viewers, such as “Were there good slave owners?” and “If enslaved women could have said no, how different would our country be today?” Johnson said the questions were designed to spark discussions about the difficult decisions that enslaved people faced each day of their lives.
The BHMVA partnered with St. Paul’s Baptist Church to bring 500 high school students from Richmond Public Schools to the exhibition, and these discussion questions and others were posed to students, Johnson said.
“I think knowing history really helps to create a common ground and allows people to have good conversations and understand each other better so that as we go forward together, having those discussions, making decisions, and planning for tomorrow all comes a lot easier when we know and understand our history,” Johnson said.
The adults who view Paradox of Liberty, Johnson said, have expressed surprise at the triumphant nature of the exhibition. She said that they expected to feel sadness at the end, but instead were impressed with the post-enslavement resilience of the families that’s documented by the exhibition.
The Getting Word oral history project has collected the stories of the descendants of Monticello’s enslaved people, and highlights the perseverance of the families after slavery. These stories are featured in a video at the close of the exhibition. As a member of the Hemings family, which has always known itself to be descended from Thomas Jefferson’s six children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, Jessup White said she is filled with wonder for the way her ancestors provided for her family, and for their strength and character.
“I like to share with people that it’s their history too,” Jessup White said. “What I know is what they know. What I experienced about my family is no different from what other Black people’s families had experienced. So that’s important. It’s important for all Americans to know this history. It belongs to everybody. It’s all of our history. We have a responsibility to recognize all the people who built America.”
One story from Jessup White’s family history is that of two brothers enslaved at Monticello, Peter and James Hemings. James had learned the art of French cooking, much beloved by Jefferson, during Jefferson’s stay in France. When James returned to Monticello, he was able to negotiate his freedom — but only if he taught his brother, Peter Hemings, how to cook for Jefferson. James was given his freedom, and Peter remained to cook at Monticello until he was sold in 1827 after Jefferson’s death, Jessup White said. These kind of stories, she said, are the ones she hopes young people will hear and understand the strength it took to survive the oppressive, inhumane institution of slavery.
“[Young people] walk away understanding the determination of our people, the sacrifices that they made, because of that story with James and Peter, and the love that existed between those two brothers,” Jessup White said. “One, knowing that that skill will keep him bound to Monticello while his brother walked away free. How much love was that, how much sacrifice was that, how much resilience was that?”
Stories like James and Peter Hemings’ often only exist because of the public’s fascination with Jefferson and other founding fathers, Jessup White said. Her family’s story isn’t any different than other families enslaved on plantations in the South — the only difference is the prominence of the man that owned her ancestors, and is her ancestor himself.
Johnson, as the director of a Black history museum in Richmond, a city that is 48 percent Black, said that having the chance to tell the stories of the enslaved families at Monticello was “necessary.” The Paradox of Liberty helped the museum “connect yesterday with today and tomorrow,” Johnson said.
As the Black Lives Matter movement and protests for justice for Black people in the United States call for the reevaluation of founding fathers who owned slaves, Jefferson’s legacy continues to be examined.
“There were … things that he did that were a paradox,” Johnson said. “He said that slavery was an abominable crime, but yet he owned slaves. So we want that story to be told so that there’s no confusion… We’re not trying to erase it — we can’t erase it. But we just need to tell the whole story.”
Photos via Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia