Untangling the Legacy of Slavery

Aerial View of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
Aerial View of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
Dan Addison / University Communications

As the mists rose off of Mulberry Row at Monticello on a mild September morning, the choir of the Union Run Baptist Church brought the crowd of nearly 2,000 to its feet.

They gathered not only to hear the music, but also to hear some of the best minds in the nation on the history of America’s founding, the roles of slavery and civil rights, and where the country stands today, share expert scholarship, heartfelt thoughts and activism.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation hosted the public event, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America” at Monticello, the founder’s mountaintop home, on Saturday. The meeting featured commentaries from a dozen participants, including historians, descendants of those enslaved at Monticello, cultural leaders and activists engaged in several far-ranging conversations on the history of slavery and its meaning in today’s conversations on race, freedom and equality.

The Monticello summit capped off Human/Ties, a four-day celebration of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 50th anniversary, organized by NEH and the University of Virginia. Poet and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni made a special appearance, along with the choir, and the Community Performance Project, produced by Bree Newsome.

The speakers agreed: What better place to reflect on how the U.S. has come to this present point in the 21st century than at Monticello, the home of one of the founders who exhibited the fundamental contradictions of this democracy so strongly that we’re still struggling with today?

“How can we close the gap between creed and deed?” asked Marian Wright Edelman, who heads the Children’s Defense Fund.

The world knows more about the lives of the enslaved because of researchers like Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, who worked at Monticello for years and started the oral history project, “Getting Word,” and Annette Gordon-Reed, who published the breakthrough book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” – both projects helped uncover the history and stories about the slaves and descendants connected to Thomas Jefferson.

Aerial view of Monticello showing House, Mulberry Row, and Vegetable Garden.
Aerial view of Monticello showing House, Mulberry Row, and Vegetable Garden.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

In addition, Mulberry Row, the hub of Monticello’s plantation where the slaves Thomas Jefferson owned lived and labored has been explored and restored in an ongoing project over recent decades. 

To open the summit, Gayle Jessup White, a Hemings and Jefferson descendant who is a community engagement officer at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and Stanton, Monticello’s Shannon Senior Historian Emeritus, reflected on Monticello’s African-American community. Since 1993, more than 170 descendants of those enslaved at Monticello have been sharing their family stories through the “Getting Word” oral history project.

Peter Onuf, UVA Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History Emeritus and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello, started off the first panel discussion looking at the country’s founding and key lessons from slavery up through the Civil Rights Movement.

“We come here to understand the American experiment, assess its successes and failures,” he said. “Monticello exemplifies the messiness of history, the beauty of this place today and ugliness of the past.”

The connections between the past and present are needed more than ever, according to the guest participants.

Deborah E. McDowell, director of UVA’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies and a member of the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University of Virginia, stressed, along with others, that there are still stories to be told. She quoted Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” about the need to weep for the past. Part of the title of the summit included the word “mourning,” McDowell said, because slavery engendered brokenness and a loss that can’t come to closure.

“As we think of mobilization, let us pause for those moments of loss,” she said.

The panelists emphasized that sharing stories of the past, including those yet to be found, and teaching accurate history to children have to be part of the path of freedom.

“We come here to understand the American experiment, assess its successes and failures.” - Peter Onuf

Historian Ed Ayers, president emeritus and humanities professor at the University of Richmond and a former UVA dean, said there are new ways to tell the stories now, such as with digital technology, and even if society can’t rectify the past, it can acknowledge and build on the truths that come from it.

Onuf recounted that Jefferson wrote to Adams, “Earth belongs to the living.” The present creates the stories for future generations, Onuf said.

NEH chair William D. Adams introduced the second group that tackled the modern day struggle for racial equality, with moderator Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University professor, cultural critic and host of the PBS genealogy show, “Finding Your Roots.” It’s impossible to work on race relations without using the approach of the humanities, Adams said. 

The panel included Melody Barnes, former member of Obama’s administration; UVA alumnus Jamelle Bouie, who works as chief political correspondent for Slate magazine; editor and author Jon Meacham; and Bree Newsome, the community activist who climbed the pole to remove the Confederate flag at the South Carolina state house.

The policy-makers and commentators shared ideas about the consequences of slavery and race relations that show Americans have not come to grips with the past, despite having the first – and a reelected – African-American president. They talked about problems of unequal education and mass incarceration of black men being some of those consequences. Gates said one recent poll showed 69 percent of Americans think race relations are going badly.

Bouie said he has had occasion to ask, “Who is this country for? Is it for all of us, or is it for white people?” He holds out hope that more people believe in the ideals the U.S. democracy is based on, and will continue to work on improving and ameliorating unequal conditions, he said.

Like Jefferson, with his shining ideals and less-than-ideal life, the country is still grappling with the holdover of white supremacy – around the world, not only in America, Gordon-Reed reiterated.

Nevertheless, she never thought she’d see a gathering like this one, bringing so many different people together, she said.