Tag Archives: Monticello

The Hemings Family Tour

I recently had the opportunity to go on the Hemings Family tour at Monticello. A group of 14 people including myself attended this program, which our guide rightfully noted is “probably the most famous enslaved family in American history.”

The tour began on the west side of Jefferson’s home before moving on to the south terrace. There we were able to take in the view where importantly, our guide, Mr. Bill Bergen noted that most of Jefferson’s enslaved laborers were not members of the Hemings family nor worked in and around the house. The majority of those slaves worked in the fields planting predominately grain crops in Jefferson’s years as a Federal public servant, including his years as President and in his retirement from public life. He pointed out the various farms that could be seen from our vantage point, which looked down over this area. One certainly can’t help but think of Jefferson looking over this same space to attempt to monitor the field hands.

View of the agricultural fields at Monticello where most of Jefferson's slaves planted, tended, and harvested his crops. Photo by author.

View looking towards the agricultural fields at Monticello where most of Jefferson’s slaves planted, tended, and harvested his crops. Photo by author.

Quickly Bergen returned to the topic of this tour: the Hemings family. He made clear that the Hemings are a tough subject for many people. As he said “We will deal with some tough subjects but they are important to understanding the Hemings’ and Jefferson.” On this tour we entered the house the way the Hemings (and other enslaved domestic servants) would have, not from the grand entrance on the east side of the building.

Once underneath the entrance hall in the cellar, we were given a piece of paper with the Hemings family tree starting with the matriarch, Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings (1735-1807). After giving a small history of her, Bill pointed out the “Crossroads” exhibit which features cutouts of Martha Jefferson Randolph (Jefferson’s eldest daughter and longest living child) but also members of the Hemings family: Burwell Colbert, a butler; Priscilla Hemmings, the woman who provided a great amount of child care for the Randolph children; Betty Brown, who was a seamstress and lady’s maid; and Harriet Hemings, a girl who also was a seamstress and had other skills. The space had some interactive items: a replica portion of the dumbwaiter used in the dining room in Jefferson’s time as well as a call bell, which other visitors were consistently ringing. The space, with other visitors not on this tour, other employees not giving the tour, and our own presence certainly gave the feel for a lot of hustle and bustle. We ascended a narrow staircase, which forced some people to comment about the struggle in getting materials like food up and down the narrow staircase.

We moved through the principal rooms of the first floor as most visitors to Monticello do; but this time not with an eye to the pelts and bones in the entrance hall. Rather, it was Burwell Colbert would have greeted visiting people at the door. He or others kept this room (and others) warm in the winter. He probably was in charge of keeping the massive clock going in that same hall. Colbert was the subject and the actor here. How he worked and what he did. Jefferson was included of course, but not in the way you usually hear about him on the “normal” tour of the house. Let me be clear though (having been on the traditional tour), Burwell Colbert is discussed on that tour.

In the South Square Room, where Martha Jefferson Randolph’s small office/Jefferson library overflow is represented, the guide created some interactions between Colbert and Mrs. Randolph. In addition, a small writing table is reproduced based on one made by John Hemmings (1776-1833—side note: he unlike the other members of the family seems to always have two m’s in his surname).

The discussion about John Hemmings continued in the book room and book annex, where Mr. Bergen encouraged us to look at the woodwork and reflect on the craftsmanship of John. He asked the audience about what would be advantages and disadvantages in a system of slavery of working in and around the owner’s house. Also, he asked what might have been some advantages and disadvantages of having the light skin of the Hemings in a time where skin color really did inhibit people’s understanding of other people. Visitors were willing to engage with this (though only two of us, self included were black).

After a quick walk through the parlor, we were ushered into the bedroom of Jefferson. There we discussed Burwell again who also saw to Jefferson’s needs as his personal servant. Our guide explained the Burwell was one of those that Jefferson freed in his will and he was given $300 to buy tools that could be used for his skills as a painter and glazer. For me, whenever I go to Monticello I can’t help but stare at the alcove bed and think about the saga of Sally Hemings.

The tour went into the dining room where the wine dumbwaiter and the static dumbwaiter were not described as a unique little Jefferson invention but rather as a way for Jefferson to limit the amount of slaves seen by people in the dining room.

We went down into the south dependency and into the kitchen. Bill Bergen discussed James Hemings (1765-1801), who Jefferson took to Paris, France when James was 19 years old. For three years, James learned the art of French cookery and though he was technically not enslaved in France then, Hemings returned to the United States. While in Philadelphia, Jefferson and Hemings agreed that if Hemings taught another slave of Jefferson’s the art of cooking in the French style, Jefferson would emancipate James. This was done in 1796 and here Bill Bergen noted that we have the clear sign that James was also educated. James compiled an inventory of kitchen items at this time. James’ brother, Peter filled the void. In 1801, Hemings as a free employee returned to work at Monticello briefly before dying of what appears to be suicide later that year.

After a quick five-minute break, the tour began again outside the South Dependency. Here, the guide pointed out that one of the rooms in the south dependency housed Sally Hemings at one point. That room (which had been a restroom) will have archaeology done and work will go forward with representing the space, as Sally would have experienced it.

View of the southern wing which includes a room that was used as a slave quarter. Work will be done to begin a restoration of the quarter space. Photo by author.

View of the southern wing which includes a room that was used as a slave quarter. Work will be done to begin a restoration of the quarter space. Photo by author.

We went over to the weaver cottage/slave quarter on Mulberry Row, one of two original buildings that survive on the row. As a part of the “Mountaintop Project” (heavily funded by David Rubenstein), the cottage will get much needed restoration work to bring it back to its appearance when Jefferson lived at Monticello and when free and enslaved laborers worked in this space. This is another space that the guide pointed out that Sally Hemings occupied at one point.

 

View of the reconstructed John and Priscilla Hemings cabin. Photo by author.

View of the reconstructed John and Priscilla Hemmings cabin. Photo by author.

 

We finally came to the reconstruction of John Hemmings’ and Priscilla Hemmings’ (1776-1830) cabin. Mr. Bergen encouraged us to take note of the petrified chinking that was discovered in an archaeological investigation with the imprint of a hand on it. One visitor asked if the size of the slave quarter was typical. He noted that though the building was not original it was recreated based on archaeology and contemporary historical documentary evidence. He did state that one exception was that the log chimney would have likely leaned further away from the structure in the event of a fire the chimney could be pushed away from the rest of the structure to save the majority of the structure. We went inside the cabin where there were some items such as dishes, a table filled with some personal items, and one bed. There was also a root cellar represented but unfortunately moisture was trapped beneath the Plexiglas so as to prevent us from seeing what foodstuff was represented in the root cellar. Another visitor asked if there would have been bedsteads for children or if they slept on the floor. Here Bill explained that the best evidence beyond the archaeology of the site was the account of Martha J. Trist’s (great-granddaughter of Jefferson) 1889 memoir recalling the interior of the cabin. Jefferson’s granddaughter, Cornelia also provided some description of what was in the space by recounting Priscilla’s death.

It was also outside the reconstructed quarter that we delved into Sally Hemings (1773-1835). Mr. Bergen noted that the story dates back to the early years of Jefferson’s presidency and is shrouded in mystery as neither Jefferson nor Sally Hemings made any public or private written statements. Jefferson’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren attempted to push the blame onto other family members. The 1999 DNA testing had to be done with a male Jefferson family member not of a direct descent to Thomas Jefferson because Jefferson lacked a son. However, the evidence did prove it was a Jefferson (not a Carr) who fathered Eston Hemings (and probably all of Sally Hemings’ children who were all light skinned and three light enough to pass as whites). He also noted that the post-1999 vogue idea for those who cannot imagine Jefferson having children with Sally, has been to blame Jefferson’s brother, Randolph. He highly credited the thinking of Annette Gordon-Reed. He said “I doubt a man would have thought of this; but, she looked back at the 9 months prior to Sally having a child and found Jefferson was at home and no evidence of Randolph having been at Monticello.” Bill said that some people have left Monticello as employees since this controversy of the late 1990s/early 2000s but that others have come on and are willing to deal with the reality: that it is very probable that years after Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was dead, Jefferson had a relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings. He said that some people on the other end of the spectrum feel like the foundation doesn’t go far enough in calling out the way in which Sally may have had these children (i.e., by force); but, he said it is impossible to know if any legitimate feelings of love existed between the two or not.

In all, I thought the tour was well received and conceived. Mr. Bergen noted that Monticello could not have existed without slavery. From the very removal of part of the top of the mountain, to the brick masons and carpenters and cabinetmakers, to those who made clothing and dumped urine and feces out of chamber pots, over to those in the fields. The Hemings were clearly the focus but their unique set of circumstances was also not privilege. Some family members were able to be free, at least Sally’s oldest sister, Mary had a long-term relationship with a white man. Still, she was not able to get her four enslaved children out of slavery after she was free. James Hemings (son of Critta) was whipped and later escaped (though interestingly enough, Jefferson did not go looking for him). And some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren suffered the fate of many slaves: sold at auction because of the debts of a single slaveholder.

In this tour the Hemings enslaved community had names and families but also were talked about in an active voice. They loved, they worshipped, they resisted the institution of slavery, a small few were emancipated, and they suffered under the yoke of bondage. I would say that my only real critique is that I wish more time had been given to day-to-day life of these people. One example is in Jefferson’s bedroom there is a chest of drawers with some personal bric-a-brac. It would have been easy to discuss Burwell Colbert’s interactions with these items as Jefferson’s personal servant as a means to illustrate Burwell’s work and drive home the point about work in the “big house” not necessarily being easy. It’s always a good time to see what Monticello is doing and certainly now, as Bill Bergen said: the staff is more committed than ever to not using passive voice and getting the story of slavery out to the public.

 

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“Was he bi-polar?!” OR Interpreting the Violence of Enslavement

This post’s title is inspired by comments that I have recently been asked while interpreting a slaveholder at work. I include the same overall historical facts in all of my tours of the plantation big house; though I vary the arrangement of the words. The owner of the property had a few enslaved laborers who were clearly his favorites. He complimented their “good conduct” and the work they performed. If unsatisfied with that work he “scolded” or “spoke to” those whom he liked. He gave monetary gifts at Christmas to most of the enslaved community (by 1860, 113 individuals) and for his favorites, he gave monetary gifts at other times of the year.

Yet, these were a few individuals and it is clear even as they were his favorites, he still believed white Southerners were superior to people of African descent. As members of the enslaved community resisted his authority, he, like the clear majority of slaveholders, turned to a variety of non-violent and violent methods to show that the slaveholder held considerable power. I’m interested in telling my visitors about the tug-of-war over who had more power (those who were enslaved or the enslavers) and the techniques both used in that power struggle.

So the question I hear “Was he bi-polar?” strikes me as strange because I have no belief that this plantation owner was bi-polar. I also have no ability to make that judgment 117 years after his death. What I think this stems from is a lack of our plantation sites or museums including the violence of enslavement.

Often visitors to historic plantation sites are invited to witness the “splendor” of furnished rooms or to understand the “hospitality” of the plantation owners. Yet the majority of the people who lived (and labored) on these plantations were people of African descent not welcomed into the grand parlors or elaborate dining rooms of the people who owned them.

The wonders of the Internet make is possible for us to see a variety of plantation rules, such as Joseph Acklen, who lived with his wife Adelicia at Belmont Mansion in Nashville and the sugar plantations she got after the death of her first husband (who was a well-known slave trader). As you can see here whipping was how he, his overseers, or agents dealt with the enslaved laborers he owned.

While it appears Thomas Jefferson preferred not to whip people, his overseers did perform the task (see Lucia Stanton’s “Those who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s Revolutionary hero and first president were whipped by overseers and Washington supported the whippings as a means to control those who resisted. Wesley Norris, former slave at Arlington, the Custis family estate (now dominated by the Arlington National Cemetery), recalled he, his sister, and one of their cousins ran away in 1859. Their escape failed and upon return to Arlington, he recalled Robert E. Lee, administrator of George Washington Parke Custis’ estate, ordering the overseer to whip them. The overseer having balked at this task, Lee had a local constable called in who was told by Lee to “lay it on well” (see Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters).

Aunt Sally being whipped

Slavery and violence go hand-in-hand. Slaveholders thought nothing about their carrot and stick methodology to try to control the enslaved men, women, and children on their properties. The interviews conducted with former slaves illustrates the personal experiences of individuals who coped with a series of non-violent threats (such as the thought of sale), non-violent actions (selling people, cutting off access to food, or restricting a person’s ability to leave the slave owner’s property), violent episodes (such as rape, mutilation, or the extremely common whippings), compliments, and rewards. I cannot think of a single slaveholding site or museum that exclusively discusses the brutality of enslavement (it would be historically inaccurate to do so); but I can think of many that refuse to engage with the vicious nature of human bondage.

We need all of these places to use the historical record (i.e., eyewitness accounts) to present a full record of the events that occurred on slaveholding properties. As hospitable as someone could be to a sibling or neighbor is as wicked as he or she may be to an enslaved person on a given day and then be complimentary of that same enslaved person some weeks later. I am not convinced that slaveholders were on the whole “bi-polar;” but, I am convinced that historic sites and museums still have more research to undertake and (most importantly) have to broadcast their findings in a responsible way.

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Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites

On April 21, I posted a video link to a C-Span recording of a session filmed at Monticello regarding interpreting slavery at historic sites. Much of this is centered on a project at Monticello to reconstruct in part or in full Mulberry Row, a series of outbuildings, plantation industrial buildings and slave quarters which sat adjacent to Jefferson’s twice-built mansion.

The author with two friends at the site of a slave cabin along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

The author (center) with two friends at the site of a slave cabin along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

Having had time to fully listen to the conversation I had a few thoughts and a few questions for y’all.

The panelists were Sara Bon-Harper, new executive director of Ashlawn-Highland, one of the homes of President James Monroe; Frank Sanchis, World Monuments Fund, United States Programs Director; Ed Chappell, Architectural research director at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; and Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology at James Madison’s Montpelier.

As you’ll see if you watch the video, a lot of the discussion is centered on past case studies of reconstructions of buildings at Colonial Williamsburg and Ashlawn-Highland and methods of interpreting space not reconstructed consume the conversation of Dr. Reeves and Frank Sanchis. However, there were some points made by the panelists and the audience that I think bear repeating.

Sara Bon-Harper reminds us that we often only see the plantation core such as the big house and a kitchen and perhaps a few other outbuildings when visiting historic plantations. We therefore miss the larger plantation landscape. Quite often, this is because a historic site only includes that core as previous owners only saved that core or sold the agricultural and woodlands associated with the estate years ago. Where those lands remain, visitors are either too pressed for time to explore the many acres or there is limited access to those fields provided by the site. Furthermore, unlike in the era of slaveholding, there is usually nothing in the fields now but meadow grasses or woodlands that were not there historically.

Ed Chappell brings up a good point regarding the reconstructed Peyton Randolph slave quarter/kitchen/servants’ hall and the current interpretation there. While the reconstructed spaces contribute to broadening our understanding of the Randolph family and urban slavery in Williamsburg in the eighteenth century, often now when people are cooking in the Randolph kitchen it is being done by white employees. They certainly are well intentioned but Chappell (and I) wonder what type of message does that send? Are people really understanding race relations in eighteenth century Virginia or becoming focused on the cooking demonstration?

The thought of what kind of message are we sending is echoed in Reeves’ comments about the Montpelier slave descendants coming to see Montpelier after the exterior restoration was finished. They were not impressed with the railroad ties and grass representing where the slave housing existed in the Madisons’ time. The foundation has currently installed three-dimensional timber-framed half-finished ghost structures to represent smokehouses and slave quarters. As Reeves states, these buildings juxtaposed with the mansion house create an interpretive tool.

Mr. Sanchis’ comments were centered on his passion for preserving original buildings. He recognized several times that there are few original slave quarters remaining but was generally opposed to reconstructions of missing buildings. Often times, I admit, I found myself in strong disagreement with his commentary especially regarding visitors ability to distinguish reconstructed versus restored buildings (though some of the audience discussion seemed to reaffirm his position; I still think most people can make those distinctions when told). Frank’s comments regarding the Arlington original slave quarters being so altered that he did not feel the originality was curious to me since I had just been to them. While it is true, there have been many changes to those quarters since the 1800s, I still felt the power of them in my recent visit there (which I blogged about). One of the projects Arlington is doing now is restoring one of the buildings with better attention to the details than had been done in the 1930s-1950s when they were interpreted honestly as cottages. One thing he said I agree with, however, I’m curious what you think so I will pose the question later.

One comment from an audience member who works at Colonial Williamsburg is only partly true. While there have been various Blacks affiliated in some manner with Colonial Williamsburg as an operation it is not true that Blacks have always been seen interpreting the experience of eighteenth century free blacks and enslaved people. At least by the 1950s and 1960s, Colonial Williamsburg operated on a specific day of the week for African-Americans to visit the site. Like nearly everything, Colonial Williamsburg was segregated. Recently, a new acquaintance of mine, Tiya Miles reminded folks at a conference to consider that Blacks often had no clue how they would get from their home to a vacation site during the era of segregation and racial violence. Hotels and restaurants often would not serve Blacks and stopping to get gas had the potential to get violent or at least uncomfortable.

Annette Gordon-Reed brought up a concern that reconstructed (and the few originals remaining) slave quarters are often seen as “quaint” by visitors (as was the earlier furnishing of the Arlington slave quarters in the 1940s and 50s) and she wonders how we can make this not seem the case.

Finally, I thought one of the audience members made an amazing point that I was emphasize. Slavery should be interpreted at plantation sites throughout the mansion house tour. Segregating the story to a separate tour, making slavery seem like a beneficial institution for all, or ignoring the story is not acceptable. There are artifacts of slavery in the mansion houses at these sites: who poured wines and served meals in the dining room? Who made the beds in the bedrooms? Who lit the fires throughout the house?

So on to my questions for you (and I hope to hear from y’all with some thoughts/answers/maybe more questions):

  1. In the discussion it was suggested the reconstructed buildings be placed elsewhere for interpretation. How could Monticello illustrate Mulberry Row for the masses of people who come to the site without the reconstructions being on Mulberry Row?
  2. Frank Sanchis asked if there was something to be gained by doing a living history at a plantation site. Are people really grasping what slavery was like through living history?
  3. Sara Bon-Harper’s point about the plantation core is true, so how can plantation sites represent or illustrate the totality of the plantation owner’s lands to the public who are at the mansion house?
  4. Frank Sanchis states that he finds there is little cooperation between historic sites regarding how they interpret slavery. For those of you who are museum professionals, do you find that is true?

So what do you think?

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