On June 25, 2014, President’s Commission on Slavery and the University co-Chairs Dr. Marcus Martin and history professor Kirt von Daacke visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Joining them on the trip were commission members Tierney Fairchild, Meghan Faulkner, Patrice Grimes, and Tamika Richeson. As well, Local Advisory Board members Doreen Feldman, Phoebe Haupt, and Dorenda “Rennie” Johnson attended.
Linnea Grim, the Hunter J. Smith Director of Education and Visitor Programs, showed the commission delegation the interpretive exhibits at the visitor’s center. This included a dazzling interactive media display with touch screens.
She also explained Monticello’s now twenty year-old effort to interpret slavery and the lives of the enslaved. One exhibit focused heavily on “Those Who Built Monticello.”
The Getting Word oral history project began in 1993 and has “brought remarkable individuals out of the shadows of slavery” Getting Word. Through oral history interviews of descendants of former Monticello slaves, the project has linked the personal stories about Monticello slaves to “newer stories about fighting for justice.”
As Ta-Nehisi Coates has stated, “The consequences of 250 years of enslavement, of war upon black families and black people, were profound…and this destruction did not end with slavery.” Thus, acknowledging and interpreting Monticello’s or the University of Virginia’s historical relationship with slavery must involve initiating and sustaining community outreach and dialogue.
In particular, commission members were struck by just how challenging it is to address simultaneously multiple concepts: daily life at Monticello, Jefferson’s statements on slavery and race, the often violent reality of slavery’s cruel oppression of the enslaved, and the thoughts, motivations, and actions of enslaved individuals at Monticello. How can visitors learn about Thomas Jefferson, his home and plantation, and the experiences of the enslaved in the few hours typical visitors spend there? This represents a question that Monticello is still trying to answer as it continues its now two decade-long effort to address better the landscape of slavery. It is also a sobering reminder for the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University about how long it takes to do the research, design an interpretive plan, institute that program, and adjust accordingly.
Tour guide Brandon Dillard led the delegation on a tour of the house and demonstrated how the house tour has evolved to address slavery. Dillard touched upon Jefferson, slavery, or the lives of individual enslaved members of the Monticello community in nearly every room. As he has explained, “By far, the most confounding aspect of Thomas Jefferson is his complicity in slavery. Two hundred years ago, the rights described in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to Native Americans, African Americans, or women. The failure of the Founding Fathers in eradicating the injustice of slavery left a lasting legacy this country continues to struggle with every day.”
Later, tour guide Aurelia Crawford led the delegation on the “Slavery at Monticello” tour, which features a walk along Mulberry Row, the “dynamic, industrial hub of Jefferson’s 5,000-acre agricultural enterprise. As the principal plantation street, it was the center of work and domestic life for dozens” of slaves Mulberry Row. Mulberry Row is currently undergoing significant renovation that includes reconstruction of some of dwellings and workshops that were along it.
For the commission, what we saw was food for thought about how to design an interactive media display in the Rotunda visitor’s center and how to incorporate the story of slavery into both a visitor’s center exhibit and into the Academical Village itself.
The commission has been hard at work on identifying potential sites on Grounds that could serve as interpretive spaces regarding slavery—seeing a slave cabin newly constructed on Mulberry Row drove home the importance of including such powerful visual reminders about the past.