Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

Monticello

Posted June 9th, 2008 by

What better way to begin a week at Coming to the Table–which will bring together descendants of the enslaved, the enslavers, and the slave traders for a week of study and reflection on our unique connection to our shared history and what we can do to contribute to healing–than to visit the ancestral home of Thomas Jefferson with his great-great-great-great granddaughter?

I flew from Providence, Rhode Island to Durham, North Carolina where I was met at the airport by my friend Prinny Anderson, a direct descendant of Thomas and Martha Jefferson. We drove together to Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia where our weeklong course at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute will take place.

We stopped near Charlottesville at Monticello and took the guided tour of the house Jefferson designed and had built for himself and his family. As a direct descendant of the third president of the United States, Prinny has been here untold numbers of times. I never had. The tour itself took us through the various rooms on the main level of the home. 60% of the furnishings belonged to Jefferson. The rest are from the era in which he lived.

I have a particular affinity for Jefferson in all his complexity. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. He deeply and truly believed in liberty at the same time 200 enslaved Africans that he owned maintained his plantation at Monticello. He strongly supported the 1808 law that outlawed the U.S. slave trade and also enabled my distant cousin–James DeWolf–to continue trading in African people by appointing his brother-in-law as customs inspector in the Bristol, RI district. He is one of history’s true beacons of freedom and maintained an intimate and secret relationship with a woman he owned, Sally Hemings–resulting in the birth of several children–for close to four decades. Thomas Jefferson is a complicated man and in many ways embodies the complexity of the nation he helped start.

Hemings and the other people Jefferson owned were mentioned briefly–once–during our guided tour. Slavery isn’t ignored and it isn’t highlighted. Since I’ll be spending the week with descendants of Jefferson from both of the women with whom he had children, I, of course, am acutely aware of this history. I was captivated by the architecture, Jefferson’s library and study, the bed in which he slept and died, the room where John and Abigail Adams regularly stayed.

Underlying it all is the knowledge of who built these grounds, who cooked the food, who cleaned the house, who emptied the chamber pots, who lived and died here along with the great man and his family. Last July Prinny helped organize a gathering of descendants of both Martha and Sally. Among the 250 people present black folks outnumbered white folks 4-1. Prinny marveled that the proportion was roughly equal to what it would have been most of the time during Jefferson’s day. No matter how many family members and friends were at Monticello–and Jefferson loved to be surrounded by family and friends–there were always many more enslaved people there.

We walked to the cemetery where Jefferson and his descendants are buried, where Prinny’s parents and grandparents are buried, and where one day Prinny will be buried. We walked half a mile back to the parking lot and visited the burial ground of the enslaved of Monticello that was discovered in the midst of the parking area in the year 2000. Throughout our tour I was continually struck by the contrasts, complexities, and ironies that make up Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, and the United States.

I was struck in particular by a comment Prinny told me that one descendant of Sally Hemings offered when asked what it felt like to be at this place. He said that some of his ancestors toiled here, built and maintained this plantation, lived and died in obscurity. Others of his ancestors owned this place, benefited from all that is magnificent about it. Unlike the descendants of Thomas and Martha, he–like all of Thomas and Sally’s descendants–is directly connected to all of what comprises Monticello.

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