Putting Enslaved Families’ Stories Back in the Monticello Narrative

An oral history project deepens our understanding of U.S. history by sharing accounts of the community owned by Thomas Jefferson

Monticello's main house and South Wing (© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)
smithsonian.com

Two-and-a-half months had passed since Velma Williams’ 96th birthday on July 4, 2016, but never one to let her age get to her, she wanted to celebrate the occasion by driving cross-country from her home in Oakland, California, to Charlottesville, Virginia. Along the way, she’d stay at her cousin Nancy Ann’s apartment in New York City and then head south to her cousin Ruth’s in Richmond, Virginia.

Together, the three cousins would present themselves at the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville to be interviewed by researchers from Getting Word, an oral history archive for descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved community. Ruth had told Velma something of the project, but Velma, whose primary research interest has always been military history, didn’t think much on it.

Though unknown to Velma, Getting Word has fundamentally altered interpretation of African-American life during enslavement under Thomas Jefferson and in freedom in the country Jefferson wrote into existence. The research that has come out of the 25 years of Getting Word’s existence has in many ways been the invisible hand behind the visitor experience at Monticello, the famed plantation owned by Jefferson, where about 400 enslaved laborers worked at one point in their lives.

By identifying descendants of families owned by Jefferson—like the Herns, Gillettes, Grangers and the many branches of the Hemings family, among others—and carefully recording their oral histories, the project’s founders, Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, Dianne Swann-Wright and Beverly Gray, and their successors have learned from dozens of American families from the mid-18th century until the present.

Getting Word participants testify to the ideals Jefferson expressed in the Declaration of Independence, while acknowledging and countering the racist fallacies Jefferson espoused that continue to affect the welfare of all Americans. As the largest oral history project of its kind, and one housed at the plantation of the most famous Enlightenment figure in the Americas, Getting Word has much broader implications for understanding American history and, importantly, it is a remarkable resource for understanding the diaspora from the plantation.

This weekend hundreds of descendants of the enslaved laborers will gather at Monticello, Jefferson’s estate, to mark the restoration and reopening of a new interpretive approach that centers the experience of the enslaved. Simultaneously marking the Juneteenth holiday and the unveiling of these new exhibits, the event serves as a testament to the years of intensive and diligent work on the part of the Getting Word initiative.

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In 1873, Madison Hemings, an enslaved son of Thomas Jefferson, became the first person formerly enslaved at Monticello to have his recollections published. Nine months later, Israel Gillette Jefferson also had his oral history set down. Both men said that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Jefferson, had children together. But Madison and Israel described a great many things in their recollections, including life at Monticello as well as life in freedom.

But for generations of people interested in history, the Jefferson-Hemings relationship has become the key issue. Rumors about it first reached a national audience in 1802 and the relationship has remained a major discussion topic in American politics and history ever since. A 1999 study revealed that visitors to Monticello had the “most emotional and reflective responses evoked by questions about Thomas Jefferson as a slaveholder and his relationship with Sally Hemings. With these questions, people often drew parallels to the place of race and morality in today’s society. They were also likely to reflect on the contradictions that slavery posed for the nation.”

Coincident with the opening of the new exhibition, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, released a public statement unequivocally acknowledging the veracity of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. It states that while “the issue of Jefferson’s paternity has been the subject of controversy for at least two centuries…It is now the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s view that the issue is a settled historical matter.” The statement, as well as the promise to “eliminate qualifying language” from exhibits and publications, reflects the research of the Getting Word project, as well as the best-selling scholar Annette Gordon-Reed, a close associate of the project’s founders.

Even though the life of Sally Hemings plays an important role in our consideration of Thomas Jefferson, hundreds more individuals enslaved by Jefferson have stories that we do not know nearly enough about. Collecting descendants’ oral histories is one way Monticello is attempting to correct the historical record.

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In the summer of 2016, Velma and Ruth had been contacted by Gayle Jessup White, a community engagement officer with Monticello and the only descendant of Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings family employed there. From their aunts and uncles, Velma and her cousins had heard stories about descent from Monticello’s African-American community. They had heard stories that one female in each generation was supposed to be named Sally for Sally Hemings.

White had been researching her third great-grandfather, Peter Hemings, an older sibling of Sally Hemings and a talented man who served as a cook for Jefferson after being trained by his brother James, who had studied the art in France and is widely considered the finest chef in early America. Peter also learned to become a brewer and a tailor. In a letter, Jefferson once described Peter as a man of “great intelligence.”

Kitchen inventory written in the hand of James Hemings
Kitchen inventory written in the hand of James Hemings, February 20, 1796 (Library of Congress)

No surviving papers in Peter’s hand have been found. White learned that Peter and his wife, Betsy, enslaved at Thomas Mann Randolph’s Edgehill plantation, named one of their children Sally, after Peter’s sister. She would become Velma and Ruth’s great-grandmother, the mother of their grandfather Anderson. White’s great-grandmother was Anderson’s sister. In a memorable phone call, White confirmed the stories Velma and Ruth had heard and invited them to participate in Getting Word.

Having moved countless times—from New York to Virginia and back again, to Germany, Ghana and California—Velma had become a well-practiced traveler. She was overjoyed with the prospect of spending time with family and meeting new relatives through Getting Word. Instead of taxing her car with all that wear and tear from a cross-country drive, Velma settled for a long train ride, first arriving in New York to see her first cousin Nancy Ann.

Their mothers were part of the Robinson family; the siblings totaled 11 all were born in the last decades of the 19th century on a farm in Goochland County, Virginia; most of the Robinson siblings, even those who later moved to Harlem, would be buried there. Velma and Nancy Ann’s cousin Ruth owns the property now and takes meticulous care of the family burial plot. There are at least 15 individuals buried there, including Velma and her cousins’ maternal grandparents, Anderson Jefferson Robinson and Lucy Lacy, born into enslavement.

Velma’s Uncle Boy is also interred at the plot. A Howard University-trained pharmacist, he was a serious man with a gifted speaking voice marvelous for reciting poetry and reading newspaper stories aloud to his nieces and nephews. He smoked Lucky Strikes and listened to the Yankees on the radio. Big Baby was his older sister. She kept an apartment in Harlem across from Abyssinian Baptist Church. Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, pére and fils, preached there, though the Robinson siblings weren’t much for church excepting Easter. Aunt Nanny was a social worker; she’d live to be 104 years old. Uncle Ben was a physician in Boston; Uncle Robbie, like his older brother Boy, had studied at Howard. He became a lawyer and Boy’s favorite gambling partner.

While with Nancy Ann, Velma recalled the Great Depression. Unemployed men carried crisply folded newspapers; at night, they’d open the papers on city benches and lie down in an attempt to rest. Ruth’s parents, who stayed on the Goochland County farm, would drive up to Harlem in the autumn with a Tin Lizzie packed full of canned food to last the cold winter days and more varieties of apples than Velma could count. There’d be two huge Virginia hams in the car too. “They really did look after each other. They loved one another,” Velma says.

From New York, Velma took a southbound train to visit with her cousins Ruth and John in Richmond. Ruth is a retired educator and at 91, she is in remarkable shape. The ranch house Ruth shares with her brother John, a Korean War veteran, is on the east side of town in a homey middle-class neighborhood. Children ride bikes on the well-laid streets, and neighbors visit with one another.

Inside, Ruth has a homemade meal prepared for Velma. “Ruth doesn’t care what time you come into town. Her door is always open for you and there’s always something good on the table,” Velma says. An Obama campaign poster hangs in the living room surrounded by photos of family and graduations, including a formal black and white portrait from the 1940s of nine of the eleven Robinson siblings. Copies of Ebony magazine are laid out on the table in front of a television, and a newly purchased romance novel lies open on the couch armrest. Ruth likes to stay up late reading her novels.

Velma still remembers the day Ruth was born. She’d been staying at the farm for the summer. “They put my cousin Thelma and I in the old Ford; Ruth’s mother was screaming in the pain of childbirth. Because they knew we’d be asking lots of questions, they fixed us dessert and had us recite poetry and nursery rhymes until the ordeal was over; next thing I knew there was a new baby in the house.” Ruth was named after a Robinson aunt, but her coloring was such that her grandmother Lucy said she looked just like a tasty fresh-baked pudding. It stuck, and Ruth became “Pudd’n”. The Robinsons were gifted at nicknames. There was an Aunt Sally, called Cookie, the last in the Robinson line to be named for Sally Hemings.

It’s stories like these that fill the Getting Word archive. African-Americans were by far in the majority at Monticello. Monticello was a Black space. People of African descent shaped the entire landscape: how the food tasted, what the place sounded and felt like. Though Jefferson considered himself the patriarch, and though most every American identifies Monticello with Jefferson, it is important to recall that people of African descent, from the time the first brick of his “autobiographical masterpiece” was laid until Jefferson’s death, were in the majority. By collecting stories and establishing relationships with descendants, Getting Word project restores the centrality of the African-American experience to Monticello.

Gayle Jessup White appeared at Ruth’s home on time to drive everyone to Charlottesville at the appointed hour. Ruth, Velma and John were having lunch and not at all in a hurry to leave. Getting Word could wait. “They were going to do this in their own sweet time and not worry about a doggone thing. So, yes, we were late,” Gayle says laughing. She remembers Velma’s button nose, Ruth’s pretty hair, and how they sparkled with interest when they walked into the International Center for Jefferson Studies for their interview. They were prepared to talk about their people.

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Swann-Wright liked to say that Cinder Stanton has forgotten more about Thomas Jefferson than most people can ever hope to learn. Stanton’s family settled in Westchester County, New York, in the 1950s. A white descendant of a Georgia plantation owner, Stanton was sent to the elite preparatory Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, where she hated studying history and misbehaved. An acceptance to Wellesley College was withdrawn after an incident that involved wandering campus late at night; she tried for Harvard instead and graduated there in 1965.

Stanton today lives off of a gravel road in rural Albemarle County, ten miles from Monticello. She was hired by the historic site as an assistant to the curator in 1968. By her own admission, during her first two decades at Monticello, Stanton didn’t spend much time considering the lives of Jefferson’s enslaved population. “Enslaved people were on my radar but not in any significant way that I can remember,” Stanton says. “Never in those years did it enter my head about where the descendants of people went.”

In 1992, however, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation called for significant new projects to mark Jefferson’s 250th birthday the following year. Stanton had read about an oral history project in North Carolina and decided to apply for a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. It was out of character. “What’s worse than writing a grant proposal?” Stanton says. But the proposal reveals her intentions for the project:

to locate the descendants of the Monticello slave population, and to record their family stories and histories. The project would combine the collection and transcription of oral histories with documentary research to locate and learn more about descendants…The information gathered will contribute to an expanded interpretation of the complex African American community at Monticello during Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime, and will lay critical groundwork for continuing efforts to provide a more balanced picture of slavery and the enslaved condition to the American public.

Funds were approved. Word got around the University of Virginia’s Anthropology and History departments that Stanton wanted to set up an oral history project, which is how doctoral student Dianne Swann-Wright got involved. At the time, she was teaching at Eastern Mennonite University and going to graduate school full-time. “I needed money to support myself, and I needed a degree because I needed to learn how to do history. I came on board because I wanted to study the African-American community—how they passed on their traditions, what they believed in, and what they passed on orally. I believe oral history is not just a secondhand medium but that it’s a favorite way of passing on information if someone is interested in the experience.”

Swann-Wright, who died in January of this year, was born in a Baltimore row house across the street from Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1950. Her ancestors had been enslaved in Buckingham County, Virginia, before the Civil War, and descendants continue living there to this day. Some were among the 200 enslaved by Archibald Cary, a man with a notorious temper who, at the time of his 1787 death, owned 4,000 acres of land. Isaac Granger Jefferson, an enslaved blacksmith at Monticello, who related those stories in his memoir. From Swann-Wright’s A Way Out of No Way: Claiming Family and Freedom in the New South:

[Isaac Granger Jefferson] recalled that Cary would beat him with a whip if he did not open the gates leading up to Monticello fast enough to suit Cary. If Cary publicly used violence on a child enslaved by someone other than himself because of the inconvenience of a gate not being opened quickly enough, it can only be imagined what measures Cary exacted against people he considered his own property and with whom he came into contact on a regular basis. A possible indication of Cary’s behavior might be found in his ghostly and feared presence more than one hundred years after his death, in the stories of people who lived near or worked at his plantation home, Ampthill. As late as 1919, blacks said that Archibald Cary’s ‘hant’ haunted the cellar of his earthly home.

Swann-Wright, who I spoke with last year, wondered how she could return the favor for other descendants of the enslaved.

The title “Getting Word” came to Swann-Wright in the shower one morning. Swann-Wright felt the title embodied how African-American families shares stories with generations coming up, “getting word” to one another across and despite of the years.“[It] immediately resonated with black folks,” she says. “They understood ‘Getting Word.’ It took white people a little longer to understand.”

With remaining funds from the grant, the project hired Beverly Gray, a researcher in Ohio, who had first contacted Stanton in the 1980s with information about descendants of Madison Hemings, a son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, living in Chillicothe, Ohio.

As a girl, Gray used to wonder why her uncle’s barn had such a well-crafted staircase, considering it was used as a cowshed. After years of research, she learned that the barn had once been the home of Madison and Mary Hemings, who had left Charlottesville for Chillicothe in the 1830s after Sally’s death. Madison had been taught Jefferson’s preferred method of crafting staircases to preserve space. Thinking back to her childhood days in her uncle’s barn, Gray now says she had been “literally standing in history.”

Two days after Christmas in 1993, Gray organized a meeting of descendants at the Ross County Genealogical Society in Chillicothe. Stanton and Swann-Wright flew from Roanoke airport at sunrise, becoming impatient; they worried about being late to their appointment, eager to begin their research.

The first official Getting Word interview was conducted the following day. The three researchers spoke with George “Jack” Pettiford, his wife Jacqueline “Jackie” Pettiford, sister Ann Medley, and niece Patti Jo Harding.

As young children growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, Jack and Ann had been told they were descendants of Jefferson and Hemings. Neither thought much of the connection, nor did they share the story widely. Jack first shared the story with his wife when they were married in the 1950s, but Jackie thought her new husband was joking. That anecdote becomes a part of the Getting Word archive, as does their full conversation, with interplays between the researchers and the subjects.

During this first, foundational discussion, Jackie laughs, telling her interlocutors, “I thought he was being funny. But I had hopes—I had hopes that he would turn out like Thomas Jefferson.” Patti Jo expresses a desire to “have a picture or see a picture of Sally. You know everybody keeps talking about Thomas Jefferson but I’d like to [know what she looked like].” Stanton tells the descendants about contemporaries’ accounts of Sally Hemings’s appearance. “I wish we knew more about Sally and her life,” Stanton says. “We know more about the connection with Jefferson but not what—what she was like as a person. And what her life was like.” To conclude the conversation, Swann-Wright asks, “What do you want the world to know about your family? What do you want the world to know about your story? What do you want to tell me that I haven’t asked?” Jack Pettiford replies:

we want [our story] to be accepted…I’m not looking for nothing. But maybe they could have some kind of recognition. Like if you did go to Monticello that you would be recognized as part of that family that came from down there. I’d bet that there’d be a lot of folks that wouldn’t probably like that but, regardless, it’s—it would be nice.

Stanton and Swann-Wright met dozens of descendants during their three days in Chillicothe. Stanton, who was still skeptical about the Sally Hemings story prior to the trip, began to come around to the evidence. She would later say:

it seemed morally impossible that Jefferson would be there as patriarch of the mountaintop and doing something that nobody in his family would have approved of. I rationalized it away. When we went out to Chillicothe those first few times, when [Gray] took me to the barn Madison built, he became a person. I took another look. When Madison was a very amorphous figure, I could dismiss his recollections. Throughout the 1970s, I certainly said that could never have happened.

Stanton’s awakening on all fronts was very gradual. Her relationship to the oral history project, and her continued exposure to all available primary source documents, brought about a kind of conversion in her thinking.

Between 1993 and late 1996, Stanton, Swann-Wright and Gray conducted interviews with 67 descendants in Ohio, Virginia, Washington, D.C., California and elsewhere in the U.S. In mid-November 1996, Stanton and Swann-Wright traveled to Courtland, Alabama. They’d heard that descendants of the Scott family, whose ancestors had been enslaved at Monticello, were still living side-by-side with white descendants of Jefferson in prime cotton country. Jefferson’s great-grandson, William Stuart Bankhead, sent the Scott family and others into the Deep South, far from the places where they and their parents and grandparents had been born, in a coffle in 1846.

Swann-Wright was apprehensive about a trip “into the cotton-picking South.” They had never interviewed white descendants of Jefferson for Getting Word, but they figured the Bankhead offspring could provide crucial information. They met cousins Cary Hotchkiss and Roger McWhorter in Courtland, Alabama.

“Every inch of land that they had was still dedicated to cotton,” Swann-Wright says. In the middle of one of the cotton fields was a mound of dirt where African Americans had been buried, surrounded by cotton. “I can see in my mind that mound.”

“That was hard. It was hard because I knew the history and I knew the present that I saw was not so far removed from that history,” she adds. She felt as if the white Jefferson descendants did not wish to be interviewed by her, so Stanton was to lead the interview. But when Stanton stumbled through the introduction, Swann-Wright took over. Hotchkiss and McWhorter answered her questions.

“What we did was good history,” Swann-Wright says. “What we did called for us to be brave. I could not discount anything because it made me feel uncomfortable.”

They went to talk with Johnny James Young, a descendant of Susan Scott, a Monticello enslaved person, living nearby. Young was a gifted gospel singer and the father to 11 children. He recalled how, during holiday feasts of barbecued sheep and duck at his grandparent’s log cabin home, the elders would talk about their ancestors coming from Monticello. During the interview Johnny became embarrassed while speaking of how he could count the chickens beneath the floorboards of his grandparents’ humble cabin. Swann-Wright recognized Johnny James’s reluctance and reassured him, saying, “Mr. Young, you need to tell me about it. You know why? …All I know is about Virginia. See, I have no idea what happened in Alabama.”

Two years after interviewing Young, Swann-Wright and Stanton met his distant cousin Julius (Calvin) Jefferson, Sr., whose enslaved family was not sent to the Deep South and post-emancipation remained in Virginia before relocating to Washington, D.C. at the turn of the 20th century. Born on Christmas Eve, 1946; Calvin’s parents didn’t have money for a hospital birth. “All my life I wanted to know [about my past],” Calvin said.

The more I find out, the more I want to know because, to me, the whole system at Monticello is a small image of what has happened to the country as a whole. At Monticello you have the beginnings of people called Negroes, basically, because you have one side of the family that you can tell is totally African. The other side of the family is mixed. And you can see that beginning, you can see how people became separated based upon skills, knowledge and color. You can see it at Monticello. And to know that I think it gets you a little bit closer to some of the problems that this country has today based upon race.

For generations, historians and the American public alike ignored the stories of Jefferson’s descendants, if they were even asked for. How differently might Americans interpret Jefferson if those whose ancestors he enslaved were able to share their thoughts with the world?

The country is about to find out. The new exhibition, combined with Monticello’s statement about language used to define the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, begins a marked shift in how the Thomas Jefferson Foundation talks about its namesake.

For years, Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, kept in her desk a newspaper article published just before she was hired by Monticello in 1986. It precisely described the visitor experience in the late 1970s, making clear that no mention of African-American life on the mountaintop was included. The new exhibit, in her words, “literally introduces to visitors the stories of descendants and their families so that people can better understand slavery and its legacy.”

She describes Stanton, Swann-Wright, and Gray as brilliant, luminous researchers, who took on the critical project because it needed to be done. Descendants’ stories had to be told. Stein says.

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Last summer, nearly 20 years after he sat down with Getting Word, I visited Calvin Jefferson at his home in a gated golf community just 15 miles from Monticello. (That he shares a last name with the President is merely coincidental.) He’s throwing a birthday party for his adult son Jay, who recalls visiting Monticello as a kid and seeing no mention of his ancestors. As we pick from a spread that includes crab legs and sausages, coleslaw and corn, jerk and barbecue chicken, Jay’s mind turns to Jefferson.

“Jefferson was not a great man unto himself,” says Jay. “He had unpaid, enslaved individuals who were extremely skilled and talented. And for the most part, they’re all from the same families. These five to eight families from the beginning to the end.”

The following morning, Jay takes his children to Tufton Farm, once owned by Thomas Jefferson and where their ancestors were enslaved. The younger of the two, about to begin preschool, runs around the property chasing butterflies, demanding to be played with and thrown in the air. Her giggles can be heard across the valley as she roams freely.

About Andrew M. Davenport

Andrew M. Davenport is a writer, editor, and teacher and will begin a doctoral program in U.S. History at Georgetown this fall. Andrew researched Getting Word while a Robert H. Smith Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies in July 2017, and recently served as an adjunct professor of African American Art History at Fairfield University.

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