Exhibit Examines Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello


Share on Facebook


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello have put together an exhibition,“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” comprised of artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collections and from excavations at Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. 

Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello was on view at the National Museum of American History and the Atlanta History Center in Georgia, and will travel to the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, August 10, 2013—March 2, 2014.  Upcoming cities also include Philadelphia and Chillicothe, Ohio.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. An age inspired by a revolution for freedom and independence was also a time of slavery. Twenty-eight percent of the American population was enslaved in 1790.

The exhibition will provide a rare and detailed look at the lives of six slave families living at Monticello—the Hemings, the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers and the Hubbard brothers. Visitors will come to know these families through personal belongings and working tools, including scythes to cut wheat, axes, wheel jacks used to replace a wagon wheel, stoneware jars and carpentry tools as well as tableware, children’s toys and accessories such as shoe buckles. In addition to the physical objects, the research gives a record of the families’ connections to one another, their religious faith and their efforts to pursue literacy and freedom.

“Understanding the details of the lives of enslaved people adds to our understanding of history and our understanding of race relations today,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of the museum. “We cannot have a clear view of Jefferson, or the founding of our nation, if we leave slavery out of the story.”

Thomas Jefferson“As a result of Jefferson’s assiduous record-keeping, augmented by 50 years of modern scholarly research, Monticello is the best-documented, best-preserved and best-studied plantation in North America,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Through our partnership, Monticello and the Smithsonian have a unique opportunity to discuss slavery as the unresolved issue of the American Revolution and to offer Jefferson and Monticello as a window into the unfulfilled promise of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

A focal point of the exhibition will be archeological artifacts that belonged to enslaved families at Monticello. Among the objects will be:

  • Jefferson’s portable desk, made by Benjamin Randolph, Philadelphia, 1776, on which he wrote a “rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence (from the National Museum of American History collection)

  • Ceramic tableware and wine bottles from Shadwell, the tobacco plantation of Jefferson’s parents, later named Monticello by Jefferson

  • The headstone of Priscilla Hemmings (Sally’s sister-in-law and nursemaid to Jefferson’s grandchildren, ca. 1776–1830)

  • Bill of sale for a “negro girl slave named Clary,” for 50 pounds (from the NMAAHC collection)

  • Cast-iron cooking pot and kitchen utensils from Mulberry Row (the road encircling the Monticello house). Jefferson provided each family with weekly rations of cornmeal, pork or pickled beef and four salted fish, which had to be supplemented with the food that the enslaved families grew

  • Personal items from slaves such as toothbrushes made with bone handles, combs, metal buttons and shoe and clothing buckles and jewelry

  • A mahogany chair (ca. 1817), a copy of the French chairs in the Monticello house and a hanging cupboard (ca. 1820) probably made by John Hemmings

“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” is presented NMAAHC in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. The exhibition is co-curated by Rex Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs at NMAAHC, and Elizabeth Chew, curator at Monticello. Objects in the exhibition come from Monticello and two Smithsonian museums—African American History and Culture and American History.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in 2003 by an Act of Congress, making it the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum. Scheduled for completion in 2015, it will be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on a five-acre tract adjacent to the Washington Monument. Currently, during the pre-building phase, the museum is producing publications, hosting public programs and assembling collections. It is presenting exhibitions at other museums across the country and at its own gallery in the National Museum of American History. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu.

Thomas Jefferson Foundation was incorporated in 1923 to preserve Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Va. Monticello is recognized as a National Historic Landmark and a United Nations World Heritage Site. As a private, nonprofit organization, the Foundation receives no regular federal or state budget support for its twofold mission of preservation and education. About 450,000 people visit Monticello each year. For information, visit www.monticello.org.

Note: The Hemings family members spelled their name with one or two “m”s. The Smithsonian and Monticello use the spelling that the individuals used. If there is no record, the single “m” is used.

Contact your library for more resources on this topic:

"Those who labor for my happiness" : slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
Lucia C Stanton, (2012).

Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
Clarence E. Walker, (2009).
Thomas Jefferson’s heroic stature as an Enlightenment archetype, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third president has always made his positions on race particularly troubling in a nation that wants to think of itself as just and equitable and also racially pure. Historian Walker uses the contradictions between Jefferson’s writings on race and his 38-year relationship with his slave Sally Hemings as a prism through which to view the complexities of American race relations. In the first part of this slim volume, Walker argues that Jefferson and Hemings are rightly the “founding parents” of the nation, signifying the racial mixture of America from its early years. In the second part, Walker examines the heated debate pre- and post-DNA testing in 1998 that confirmed Jefferson DNA in Hemings’ offspring. So powerful has been the notion of a pure white origin for the nation and its founders that even scholars have gone to great lengths to deny that Jefferson, like so many other powerful white men, was “in the closet” in terms of interracial sexual relations, forced or consensual. Walker maintains that unless the nation can fully recognize the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, it can never have a true sense of its identity.— REVIEW. First published February 1, 2009 (Booklist).Vanessa Bush

The Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family
Annette Gordon-Reed, (2008).
In the long-awaited sequel to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), Gordon-Reed delivers a powerful composite portrait of the African American family whose labors helped make Jefferson’s Virginia residence a fountainhead of American culture. Primary interest naturally attaches to Sally Hemings, the gifted black woman who chose—at age 16—to live as Jefferson’s enslaved mistress in America rather than as a free woman in France. But Gordon-Reed highlights the family role of Sally’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whose experience in bearing children to both black and white fathers schooled her in the racial dynamics of early America. Biracial relationships immensely complicated life at Monticello, where the Virginia planter famous for declaring the equality of all men counted among his slaves four of his own children, fathered in a union he never publicly acknowledged. Gordon-Reed teases out telling clues from correspondence and journals of the Hemingses’ struggle for dignity despite the cruel constraints of slavery. That Jefferson finally freed his children by Sally does not obscure those restraints, nor does it hide the tragedy visited upon other Monticello slaves when Jefferson’s posthumous debts licensed the auctioneer to break up black families to increase their market value. A must-have acquisition for every American history collection.
— REVIEW. First published August, 2008 (Booklist). Bryce Christensen

Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello
Lucia Stanton, 2000.


Thomas Jefferson Foundation Online  Resources

Getting Word (Oral History Project).

Jefferson-Hemings DNA Testing: An On-line Resource

Sally Hemings and Her Children: Information from Documentary Sources


Additional sources in the Thomas Jefferson Portal




Creative Commons License


Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><img>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.
Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture.
Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.