‘Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello’ is a landmark exhibition opening this weekend at the African-American Museum at Fair Park – just as the State Fair begins. The show was expanded from a previous one organized in 2012 by the Jefferson estate and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, what was added are significant items about Sally Hemings, including recent discoveries.
The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘Paradox of Liberty.’ That’s because the Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence with its stirring statement that all men are created equal — is also the Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves. And, he had sex with one of them: Sally Hemings. She bore six of his children – whom she had Jefferson agree to emancipate once they reached 21 years of age. She, on the other hand, never was. Hemings was also the maid to Jefferson’s own daughter.
“Yes, it was complicated,” says Gayle Jessup White, “but the story of America is a complicated one, isn’t it? What happened at Monticello, at Jefferson’s plantation, was not unique. It was happening all over the South.”
White is Monticello’s community engagement officer and a descendant of both Hemings and Jefferson. She says the exhibition tells the story of Hemings and other slave families through day-to-day items – items like Jefferson’s own laptop desk to tools the slaves used. It even traces the lineage of six slave families.
“So it’s a snapshot in time,” White says, “a time when America was still trying to figure itself out.”
It’s a snapshot we’ve rarely seen before – not in this kind of detail.