Let’s Talk Openly About Slavery: Interpretation at Monticello

 Jefferson's monticello

Jefferson's monticello

Ok, so Monticello is not a Civil War site, they don’t interpret the Civil War in any way.  But the home of Thomas Jefferson does have a connection to the story we strive to tell: slavery.  And I was very impressed by the way they shared it.

Of course slavery existed at Monticello, the plantation was built and sustained on the labor of a mix of free, indentured, and enslaved people.  There is also the infamous connection between Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.  Slavery is an integral part of the Monticello story, as it is in much of the history of the colonial and antebellum periods.  But, we’ve all been to those sites were slavery is excluded from the story, pushed to the background, covered up, or ignored completely.  Some sites include slavery, but not in the mainstream interpretation, only in separately, or create interpretation that is largely apologetic. 

Thus, Monticello provided a breath of fresh air to the interpretation of slavery.  This was a recent change; the visitor center still smelled of freshly cut wood and the exhibits include the newest technology and references to recent events.  It was well worth the change.  At Monticello slavery is not a separate entity, it is intertwined in the interpretation as seamlessly as slavery was in the daily workings of the plantation.  The film and exhibits both address the topic, even including slaves among the vignettes of people connected with the plantation.  New digital media allows visitors to ask questions about slave life along with questions about Jefferson and his family.  The dependencies of the house, located under the main structure, are open and interpreted as work and living spaces.  Also in the dependencies is a small exhibit dedicated solely to the work done by slaves to run the plantation.

The best part, however, were the tours.  Slavery was included in the tours of the main house, our guide weaving the lives of slaves and owner together.  Gone were the days where food magically appeared and wine was served but ghostly hands; instead the work done by slaves was included with no apologies and full discretion.  Monticello has fortunately had the opportunity to research the slave population and they have names and stories that they can share with visitors, furthering the experience.  Slavery was as matter-of-fact in the interpretation of Monticello as the presence of Jefferson himself.

 The slavery tour takes visits along mulberry row, the center of slave life at monticello.

The slavery tour takes visits along mulberry row, the center of slave life at monticello.

Even better was the Slavery at Monticello tour.  Yes, a 45-minute walking tour offered 6 times a day devoted entirely to the story of slavery.  And again, the topic was explored in a way that made no apologies and dodged no bullets.  I say explored, because that is exactly what we did with our guide Elizabeth.  She made it clear at the beginning that slavery was a topic that often stirred up a range of emotions, and that the tour was a safe space to explore those emotions and their meanings.  We explored the personal lives and stories of the slaves and their families, how Jefferson ran his plantation and interacted with his slaves, and how the slaves themselves reacted to and worked in the system of slavery.  Both the good times and the bad were talked about: Jefferson would not sell families away from each other and encouraged marriage and children (also due to economic benefits), but the beatings, punishments, and occasional sale of a slave to the deep south were not excluded.  The stories of slavery at Monticello were told as lives, hopes, dreams, and personal experiences,  not as the shadows of faceless workers and servants flitting behind the main characters.

Monticello is a wonderful site and a beautiful house, its story is important in so many ways.  But what made my visit so remarkable (one of my best experiences with a historic house) was the weaving together of stories and the matter-of-fact approach to slavery.

Click here for more information about Jefferson and slavery, and for a list of suggested readings

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.