Black ExperienceBlack History

Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty

“Even boys 10 to 16 years old felt the whip. There was no such thing as a good slave owner” — Tom Nash, Monticello tour guide

DALLAS — Gayle Jessup White strolled through a poignant exhibit about slavery while processing a complex past: Many of her ancestors — men, women and children — were enslaved by Thomas Jefferson.

White, community engagement officer for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, helped facilitate a new exhibit opening in Dallas, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.”

“This is a story about my family,” White said during the exhibition’s opening. “This exhibit humanizes people. You will see tools that were used by enslaved people, people who were cast aside, people who were left behind, but these people were the backbone of America.”

The exhibition tells the story of slavery at Monticello, Jefferson’s 5,000-acre Virginia plantation, from the perspective of families who were enslaved by Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and America’s third president.

More than 300 artifacts, works of art and documents representing Jefferson’s Monticello, will be on display at Dallas’ African American Museum from Sept. 22 to Dec. 31.

The exhibit was arranged by Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the Dallas African American Museum and VisitDallas. The exhibit is different from previous exhibitions because it focuses in greater detail on six enslaved Black families and their lives on Jefferson’s plantation.

The artifacts on display include shackles, plates, pottery, tools, a medicine bottle and an ornate chess set.

Dallas is the first city to host the exhibit and will feature additional artifacts that have never left Monticello. Next stops for the exhibit include Detroit and Richmond, Virginia, in 2019 and locations on the West Coast are being planned.

White is an integral part of Monticello’s African American experience: DNA tests show that Sally Hemings was White’s great-great-great-great aunt. More than 80 members of the Hemings family lived in slavery at Monticello over five generations.

“In this exhibit, you will see the stories of six families who lived and worked in slavery at Monticello,” she said. “We know of these families because Thomas Jefferson took such copious notes.”

The exhibit also features a special display about Hemings, one of the most famous African-American women in American history. Jefferson fathered at least six children with Hemings, White said.

“We’ve given back to Sally Hemings her humanity,” White said. “We want visitors to understand Sally Hemings as a person through her family roles as a mother, daughter and sister. We’re not just talking about Thomas Jefferson and his family, we’re telling powerful stories about the enslaved people and their families, too.”

Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter’s House and an honorary co-chair of the Dallas exhibit, said Jefferson was a deeply conflicted man.

“You know, it’s interesting, as I was walking around museum, reading some of the quotes that were attributed to Jefferson, the conflict that he had while being an advocate for emancipation on one hand, yet he was a slave owner on the other,” Jakes said.

Harry Robinson, president and CEO of Dallas’ African American Museum, said Dallas residents — Black and White — can benefit from the exhibit.

“Dallas is sometimes considered a cultural outpost and when we established this museum, we were trying to fill the void,” Robinson said. “This exhibition will help us bring about discussions of [racial] issues that we have been dodging for some time.”

Meanwhile, White said she wants people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to tour the exhibit to gain a deeper understanding of Hemings and other enslaved families who lived and worked on Jefferson’s plantation.

“This is an American story because these enslaved people helped shape America,” she said. “This exhibit is a big deal — there is lots to see, lots to take in and lots to learn.”

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