Monticello Works to Include Slavery into Comprehensive History
Monticello is one of the region's most popular landmarks, bringing in tourists from around the country to view the mansion and garden of Thomas Jefferson.
But it's also a former plantation with deep racial history that's often been overlooked on tours and in public dialogue.
Monticello opened in 1923, and for the first 50 or so years there was little, if any, mention of slavery.
"For a long time it wasn't a topic that was talked about," said Gary Sandling, the vice president of visitor programs and services for Monticello. "There would have been talk of servants, or field hands, or a skilled workforce," he said.
"You would have heard guides talking about Jefferson's people, his loyal servants, he called his servants ‘soles of my family' so you probably wouldn't have heard the noun 'slave,'" said David Ronka, the manager of special programs at Monticello.
Frank Walker is a Charlottesville artist. His art studio is in the historic black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, and most of his artwork depicts the everyday lives of African-Americans. He said he remembers touring Monticello as a child and not seeing much black history presented.
"We went there on field trips when I was a young kid, around elementary age. It really wasn't discussed very much as to what role black people played at Monticello. I don't even think we went into the slave quarters, just into the house," Walker said.
While Thomas Jefferson is highly regarded all throughout this region, Walker and other blacks have a different view.
"As I got older and studied history I realized that I less and less regarded Thomas Jefferson as any type of hero," Walker said. "I don't think black people have a whole lot of love for Thomas Jefferson."
It wasn't until more recently that historians, archaeologists and tour guides have started to acknowledge - and even highlight - the role of black slaves at Thomas Jefferson's picturesque mansion.
The civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s changed our society. There became a growing demand for an equal and more inclusive American story, and by the '70s, a decision was made at Monticello to discuss slavery more directly and to talk about Mulberry Row, which is where slaves lived and worked.
"But there still was no outdoor tour, or signage, or outdoor exhibitions that would really talk about this," Sandling said.
By the 1980s archaeologists began excavating slave houses. It was then that Monticello first had an exhibition that used archaeological information to talk about slavery.
"So there was this kind of undeniable, in-your-face evidence of the key role that slavery played at Monticello," said Fraser Neiman, the director of archeology at Monticello.
Fraser said during this time there was a shift toward focusing the attention to slavery, and since then archeologists have tried to build on that work.
"To paint a bigger picture of slavery," he said. "The way in which Monticello operated as well as the overall institution of slavery in the Chesapeake."
Sandling said a combination of academic and archaeological work, being done in parallel, helps reveal more about the institution of slavery even beyond the bounds of Monticello.
"This is one of the best documented plantations in the United states," said Sandling. "So leaving Jefferson aside for a second, it's just a rich trove of resources."
Throughout the decades even more was done to address the issue of race at Thomas Jefferson's historic plantation. In 1990 Monticello hosted a symposium involving a number of academic and museum experts as well as community members to talk about how to tell the story of slavery there.
"It's really the past 20 to 25 years that you really start to see a more concerted effort to tell a more comprehensive story about the Monticello plantation," Sandling said.
In 1993 Monticello began the Getting Word oral history project. Historians collected more than 100 interviews with black families that were descendants of Thomas Jefferson's slaves.
During that year Monticello also opened what were called the "plantation community tours" - tours along Mulberry row, talking about the slaves who lived and worked there. Those tours are now called "Monticello Slavery Tours," but even today there's no complete slave exhibit.
"It would have been nice to see more of the quarters they were living in," said University of Virginia student Meg Jacques while on the slavery tour.
Soon that will be possible. A new $10 million gift is giving Monticello the opportunity to recreate slave houses on Mulberry Row, the next step in telling a more complete story about slaves.
Mulberry Row was a 1,000-foot lane, which was described as being like the Main Street of Monticello. It was lined with cabins, industrial shops, blacksmithing, nail making, the woodworking shops, and it was the living quarters and the main manufacturing lane for blacks at Monticello.
"This would not have been a nice pristine quiet place; there would have been hammers hammering, smoke rising from chimneys for the blacksmith shop and the woodworking shop, horses clambering up and down the road carrying iron for example, children running around playing games... lots of activities," said Ronka.
"We didn't even mention slaves. What we do now is we try to render the lives of those enslaved African-Americans as fully as possible," he said. "They were people who had aspirations, fears, parents wanted better lives for their children, so we try to focus on their lives here so hopefully we'll send visitors away with a better understanding of the human beings who comprised Jefferson's ‘other family.'"
Right now Mulberry Row sits bare. There are no structures except for a large brick chimney that used to be a part of a woodworking shop. The upcoming recreation of slave quarters will help visitors imagine what Jefferson's slave quarters looked like.
"To imagine Mulberry Row as it looked with the labor going on there and the people who lived there, you start to see Monticello as a plantation, not just as a beautiful scenic house situated on a really lovely mountain top," said Sandling.
"Not too far down the road I hope people will be able to look inside a shop and still use their imagination but still have some parameters to go by," Ronkin said.
Today, while most people on the Monticello tours are white, the discourse is now starting to include blacks.
"We think part of telling a more inclusive story is part of making the appeal to those who might not come to say 'come discover something about America,'" said Sandling. "I mean, slavery is an American story."
Charlottesville Artist Frank Walker is happy to hear about the continued effort to include African Americans in the dialogue at Monticello, and he said he hopes more people will become educated about black history in our region. "It's always best to talk about things and learn things and realize that ignorance is a choice. Because you can fix ignorance... you can fix it by learning something," he said.
The new slave quarter exhibit is expected to be completed by the end of 2014.
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