The Conversation on Slavery and Its Legacy Has a Place at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Your Take: The stories of Monticello slaves and their descendants offer a crucial lens through which to understand American history.

View shows Monticello and grounds, in Charlottesville, Va., circa 1941.
View shows Monticello and grounds, in Charlottesville, Va., circa 1941. Lake County Museum/Getty Images

Thomas Jefferson. The mention of the name of our nation’s third president, for some Americans, brings to mind the Declaration of Independence, the founding of our country and Jefferson’s home, Monticello. For many others, his name is inextricably linked to a woman who could not access the independence guaranteed by the declaration he penned: Sally Hemings.

Their complex American story, and stories like it, deserve an authentic and central space in landmarks of American history, like Jefferson’s home at Monticello. That is why this weekend, Monticello is continuing its work on race and slavery by hosting a public forum on the West Lawn of Jefferson’s famous home, featuring Henry Louis Gates Jr., Marian Wright Edelman and Jamelle Bouie, among others.

Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers laid the groundwork for our nation. His famous words echo throughout history and are at the core of the American ideal: “All men are created equal.”

Yet there were fault lines in our democracy from the very beginning. The country relied on chattel slavery to drive the economy and ensure its prosperity for the first century. More than 200 years later, equality continues to elude many Americans. This reality shakes the groundwork laid by the founders, and its tremors are felt keenly by descendants of America’s enslaved.

The stories of Monticello slaves and their descendants offer a crucial lens through which to understand American history. They are not just the narratives of black people in America; they are central to the American narrative. They tell of resilience and brilliance, horror and pain, and survival against the odds. They hold a mirror to American morality, forcing us to confront deep contradictions inherent in people and ideas that we hold dear. America needs to know these stories.

On Sept. 17, 2016, Monticello, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Virginia, is hosting a public conversation, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America.” We know that Monticello’s strengths are squarely rooted in the study of the past. We can bring history forward, but the dialogue must be enhanced by contemporary voices. We have invited leading academics like Gates and Annette Gordon-Reed, artists like Nikki Giovanni, activists like Bree Newsome, descendants of Monticello’s enslaved families, and community members to join us in learning from the past and grappling with issues that face us today.

Here at Monticello, tour guides are on the front lines of this narrative, sharing with all visitors stories of the enslaved families who made Jefferson’s way of life possible. Many visitors take the “Slavery at Monticello” tour, tracing key individuals and their roles. Another tour focuses on Hemings and her family. In 2015 we launched the Slavery at Monticello app, which combines primary sources, first-person narrative from descendants, images and artifacts, allowing visitors to hear the voices of the past at the place where they lived and labored.

The conversation continues at Monticello this Saturday. Watch the live feed on our website, Monticello.org, and engage with us, not just this weekend, but in the weeks and months ahead.

Saturday’s forum can be a gateway to inspire more dialogue, helping us to understand our national story, mourn the inhumanity of slavery, come to terms with its lingering impact and move our nation forward to greater equality for all.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Leslie Greene Bowman is president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va.

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