Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: How the Word is Passed Down
The Atlanta History Center is honored to be one of only two traveling venues to host Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: How the Word is Passed Down, a ground breaking exhibition organized by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. More than one million people saw this thought-provoking exhibition while on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History between January and October 2012.
Through personal belongings, Jefferson’s records, oral histories, archaeology, and genealogy, Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: How the Word is Passed Down explores slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s Monticello plantation by providing a rare and detailed glimpse into the lives of six enslaved families - the Hemings, the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers, and the Hubbard brothers - as well as the powerful stories of their descendants.
Visitors come to know the personal stories of these six families via Getting Word, Monticello’s oral history project. Monticello’s Getting Word historians have interviewed some 180 descendants of people who lived in slavery at Monticello. Participants in the Getting Word project and their ancestors from previous centuries were blacksmiths and farmers, educators and ministers, soldiers and suffragists and their stories highlight examples of deep marital and family connections, values and achievements, religious faith, their thirst for literacy and education, and a tenacity to make the words of the Declaration of Independence a reality. Visitors learn where the families went after Monticello, where the descendants settled in the nineteenth century, and where they live today.
This traveling exhibition features over 280 objects from Monticello’s collection as well as artifacts from archaeological excavations at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation — the best-documented, best preserved and best-studied plantation in North America. Objects on display include Jefferson’s personal items such as a chess set, books, spectacles, and replica of the portable desk used to draft the Declaration of Independence; the headstone of Priscilla Hemmings; ceramics; cooking and kitchen utensils; and personal items of enslaved families such as jewelry, clothing, buttons and buckles, tools, and combs and toothbrushes made with bone handles.
The exhibition also provides the opportunity to reflect on Thomas Jefferson —one of twelve American presidents who owned slaves— who called slavery a “deplorable entanglement,” yet in his lifetime freed only nine slaves out of the over 600 people he owned. By exploring Jefferson’s ideas and slavery at his plantation, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello have created an exhibition that examines one of the most difficult topics in American history and explores how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime as our country still continues to grapple with issues of race.
The Atlanta History Center’s existing annual Black History Month programming, ongoing monthly public programs, and family festival days are designed to complement this new exhibition. Additional programs and activities exploring the themes of this show include school tours, a selection of genealogy workshops led by the Atlanta History Center’s Kenan Research Center; a week-long course for teachers, and Juneteenth, a summer festival celebrating freedoms and family history.
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