I recently attended the Facing the Past, Freeing the Future: Slavery’s Legacy, Freedom’s Promise symposium which was presented by Randolph College and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Regrettably, I could only attend on Friday, April 4th but it was a full and good day.
The program opening talk was given by Dr. John d’Entremont, Theodore H. Jack Professor of History at Randolph College. He examined 250 years of how enslaved people built and reformed America through slavery’s existence and destruction and how America grapples with the institution’s legacy and the promises and imaginations of freedom. In fact, his initial comments were that we were meeting on the 149th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Richmond in 1865 and 45 years after Martin L. King, Jr.’s assassination.
Following this, Dr. Theresa Singleton moderated a panel which included Dr. Barbara Heath, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, author of Hidden Lives: The Archaeology of Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest; Lori Lee, Ainsworth Visiting Assistant Professor of American Culture, Randolph College; and Jack Gary, Director of Archaeology and Landscapes, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. They discussed how archaeology, especially at Poplar Forest is helping to recreate the material world of slavery at Jefferson’s “retreat” which of course was not a retreat for the enslaved community working and living there.
In the afternoon, Annette Gordon Reed of the Harvard Law School, well-known for her books Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses: An American Family moderated a panel of descendants of black women whose ancestors were caught up in the Diaspora (though one lady’s family was a 20th century move) and most of the panelists were descendants of people who were once enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. However, one panelist, Gayle White is descended through what is likely one of Jefferson’s great-grandson (Side note: Gayle and I met each other in 2013 and discovered we are distantly related).
The morning and afternoon panels were preceded by two one-person representations of fictional blacks who were transitioning from slavery into the post-Civil War period. The morning presentation by a student representing an enslaved woman who had a child with a slave, a child with her former owner and expected to never see him again, and working on transitioning into her new life. It was well received by the audience and she captured the emotions of her character well.
In the late afternoon, the participants went to visit Poplar Forest. Apparently, the tours there have in the past been very focused on the architecture of Jefferson’s retreat house, which was heavily damaged by fire in 1845. Later alterations inspired a restoration which has included reconstructing elements of the house which have disappeared over the years from the fire and later alterations. While this was the first tour they did which took us to a place where archaeologists located quarters for the Poplar Forest slaves. On my tour, the guide shared stories about William (also called Billy) who went to Monticello in 1812 to learn a trade. However by 1817, he was sent back to Poplar Forest because Jefferson did not like his attitude. Two years later, William attacked an overseer and William ran to Monticello to plead his case to Jefferson. Exactly what happened after that is unclear though William remained at Poplar Forest. Then in 1821, William and two other enslaved men attacked another overseer. They were arrested, tried and William was convicted for attacking the overseer and was burned on the hand and whipped. After this, Jefferson had four men, including William sent to Louisiana. He later tried to escape but was recaptured and sold in New Orleans. Other stories were shared such as Field Hubbard, whom Jefferson gave some small amount of money to to dig his back lawn. In the basement of Poplar Forest, there were exhibits but as we were on a guided tour with a tight timetable, we didn’t get to explore this in any detail. In the house, there is a surviving door made by John Hemmings, who was a joiner and cabinetmaker and a brother to Sally Hemings. This is especially unique considering the 1845 fire and later alterations of the house.
Nevertheless, the trip to Poplar Forest was a nice treat. Certainly, one of the challenges I found at that site is that since Jefferson did not live at Poplar Forest full time the detailed records, like those at Monticello, are not present. What was the enslaved community’s life like at Poplar Forest?
One way this has been addressed is through the archaeological work that has been going on about 30 years out at Poplar Forest. I’ve got my own work to do in reading Barbara Heath’s book and Jefferson’s Poplar Forest: Unearthing a Virginia Plantation which was edited by Barbara Heath and Jack Gary. However, I’d be ready to go back to Poplar Forest in the future to see how their work is progressing.
Another challenge is that slavery, nor history, stopped when Poplar Forest was sold outside of the Jefferson extended family in the 1820s. In the morning session, Lori Lee and Jack Gary shared information about the Hutter family who owned Poplar Forest in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s. Surviving slave quarters from the late 1850s are still standing but in need of restoration and additional interpretation.
The greatest part of this program for me was meeting Prinny Anderson and Tess Taylor, who are white descendants of Thomas Jefferson and seeing Gayle again. My own family tree is linked with the Jefferson family; not as directly as Prinny, Tess, or Gayle. My fourth great-grandmother was an Eppes and Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson’s mother was an Eppes. I am a distant cousin of Mrs. Jefferson. However, Tess and Prinny are very open to recognizing that there are all sorts of relationships that human beings develop. In some of those relationships, children are born. The circumstances of interracial relationships in the 1800s are mostly unknown and often (as has been the case publicly in the Jefferson family) have been hidden, denied, or purposefully distorted.
Sometimes our interpretive challenges rest within our own families and how we deal with them often is more a reflection about us than our ancestors.