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Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty

Thomas Jefferson statue with names of slaves

This exhibition was organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and presented in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

The exhibition explored slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. In an age inspired by the Declaration of Independence, slavery was pervasive—28% of the American population was enslaved in 1790. The exhibition provided a glimpse into the lives of six slave families—the Hemings, the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers and the Hubbard brothers—living at Monticello and revealed how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime.

Museum objects, works of art, documents, and artifacts found through archaeological excavations at Monticello provided a look at enslaved people as individuals—with names, deep family and marital connections, values, achievements, religious faith, a thirst for literacy and education, and tenacity in the pursuit of freedom. The family stories were brought to the present via Monticello’s Getting Word oral history project, which interviewed 170 descendants of those who lived in slavery on Jefferson’s plantation.

Highlights included the following objects:

  • The portable desk used by Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence
  • 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
  • Cast-iron cooking pot and kitchen utensils from Mulberry Row (the road encircling the Monticello house)
  • Personal items from slaves such as toothbrushes made with bone handles, combs, metal buttons and shoe and clothing buckles and jewelry.