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Thomas Jefferson estate highlights slaves’ stories

Dec. 29, 2011 - 18:03 By Shin Hae-in
RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) ― When Thomas Jefferson died, scores of slaves were sold from his Monticello plantation to settle his debts. Peter Fossett, 11, was among them, recalling that he was “born and reared as free, not knowing that I was a slave, then suddenly, at the death of Jefferson, put on an auction block and sold to strangers.’’

Fossett’s story is one of many included in several new projects launching this winter to explore the slaves who lived and worked at Monticello.

A website launching Jan. 27 will showcase oral histories of the slaves in a project called “Getting Word: African American Families of Monticello.’’ An exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., called “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty’’ also opens Jan. 27 and will weave in some excerpts from the “Getting Word’’ project. And an outdoor exhibit, “Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello,’’ will open Feb. 17 at the Monticello estate in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We don’t shy away from slavery, we talk about slavery because we know that it’s fundamentally important to understanding Jefferson and understanding America,’’ said Susan Stein, a senior curator at Monticello. “In this time period, 20 percent of America’s population was enslaved, and 38 percent of Virginia’s population in 1790 were slaves.’’

Expanding the reach of the oral history project is among Monticello’s ongoing efforts to give more prominence to the role of slaves as well as indentured servants and others who worked on the plantation owned by America’s third president. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, and although he owned slaves, he called slavery “an abominable crime.’’

Because the houses on Mulberry Row were made of wood, little physical evidence remains of what once included more than 20 buildings. About 130 to 140 slaves worked at Monticello in any given year, including those who worked on Mulberry Row, which grew from five buildings in 1770 to as many as 23 buildings in 1790. Jefferson kept meticulous farm books and lists of his human property, including names of the slaves and what jobs they performed.

The Mulberry Row exhibit will feature digital renderings and animations to help visitors better understand plantation life, including smartphone applications that will show what missing buildings looked like, Stein said.

Curators are also building mini-exhibits at key Mulberry Row sites, including one on the plantation’s nail-making business that includes related artifacts from that period. Jefferson “had enslaved boys 10 to 16 years old making nails in the nail shop,’’ Stein said, and tens of thousands of nails from the site were sold to neighbors and stores.

Future components of the ongoing Mulberry Row project will include restoration of the estate’s mountaintop roads and two remaining original structures, the stable and weaver’s cottage. A couple of buildings, including a slave dwelling, also will be reconstructed, Stein said.

After Jefferson died in 1826, all of his property was sold to repay his massive debts. While Jefferson’s will freed some slaves, others were auctioned off.

Fossett, the 11-year-old whose story is one of those included in “Getting Word,’’ was the son of Monticello’s head blacksmith. His father was freed upon Jefferson’s death, but he was sold with his mother and siblings to a Charlottesville-area merchant and farmer, Col. John R. Jones. Fossett knew how to read and had taught others to do so, he recalled decades later in a newspaper article. Fossett’s new owner threatened to whip him if he caught him with a book, but he continued to educate himself and others in secret. His family and others finally purchased his freedom 23 years later.

The “Getting Word’’ project began in 1993, with historian Cinder Stanton finding descendants of the plantation’s black families and recording interviews with them about their histories. Since then, Monticello has obtained interviews with 170 descendants, including those of Jefferson and slave Sally Hemings, and traced their families’ paths from Monticello to the present. Cinder’s work also helped pull stories together from other sources like the newspaper interview with Fossett.

As for Fossett, he ended up operating a prominent Cincinnati catering business with his brother, assisted in the Underground Railroad and ultimately served as a church pastor for more than three decades.

Fossett returned to his childhood home in 1900. “Upon his return,’’ according to a newspaper account, Fossett “frequently insisted that he now awaited the approach of death with extreme satisfaction, having seen all of this life’s pleasures that heart might hope for.’’ He died six months later, and more than 1,500 people, both black and white, attended his funeral.

Oral history website “Getting Word: African American Families at Monticello’’ at launches Jan. 27. SMITHSONIAN: “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty’’ runs Jan. 27-Oct. 14 at the National Museum of American History Museum.