CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - By all accounts, it looks like an average family reunion and a group photo opportunity. But this particular picture tells more than a thousand words – about the story that made America.
“Oh, I describe it as electrifying. It’s so nice to meet other family members and places and to hear their history and figure out who’s who and where they’re from is really nice,” said Deborah Everett-Croom, a descendant of an enslaved person at Monticello.
“We came today because my mother was part of the Getting Word Project in 1997.”
Bill Webb, a fellow slave descendant, described the project as “the oral history of the enslaved persons from Monticello.”
History repeats itself and history changes over time, at least the lens we view it through and the ways the stories are told. And President Thomas Jefferson is no exception.
Founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence, architect, lawyer, and violin virtuoso. But one fact remains: during his lifetime, Jefferson owned 607 men, women, and children.
“A lot of times when you hear about Thomas Jefferson, you only hear his presidential (story) and all that, but there’s a lot more to the history,” said Carla Brooks, a Monticello visitor.
And on one particular Saturday in June, 300 descendants of the enslaved community that lived and worked at the 5,000-acre plantation gathered.
“The story of Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson and how we came through Grandma Spurs. We’re through the Madison Hemmings line,” said Everett-Croom. “It’s just nice to know where we came from and how we came about and the different people.
“You’ve got to teach your family and it’s got to start at home. If you start there, we can branch off.”
For Bill Webb, it’s helping new generations learn about the past.
“For the younger generation, seek out stories from your elders,” he said. “Put pieces together.”
New exhibits and restored spaces at Monticello tell the story of Sally Hemmings, who gave birth to six children fathered by Jefferson.
“It is part of a story that’s never been told,” said Diana Redman, a descendant of Madison Hemmings, Sally's second-oldest son. “It’s been quietly acknowledged behind doors, but never quite made it to the front page of the papers in a positive fashion.”
Monticello is the only house in the United States to be named a World Heritage Site.
Leslie Green Bowman, President & CEO of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, said pulling these stories from the shadows of history is critical to understanding and appreciating America.
“Because we don’t understand Monticello or Jefferson if we don’t understand the legacy of slavery and its history here,” she said. “We have the best of America here and the worst. It’s exactly what our country is going through, the same challenges of immigration and inequality. This is a place that has a real power to tell stories and help people think.
“This ground had blood, sweat, and tears from some 400 men, women, and children who lived here over the course of Jefferson’s lifetime. He owned more than 600, but he also had other plantations. But Monticello bears their spirit and power and hopes and dreams.
“That’s what gives this a power of place, is we begin to put those stories back, it becomes that much more powerful.”
Through song, spoken stories, and a panel of Americans having a bigger and broader conversation on race in modern America, the day served as a chance for healing.
At what seems a fractious time in the United States, this special gathering on the top of a mountain near Charlottesville, Virginia further helped to show the world the full story of the founding of this country
“From a personal level, I believe in the spirits of the ancestors. I think we have to never forget from whence we cometh,” Webb said. “So, therefore, the oral history projects through the help of the professional researchers here have helped us find many things out about our families. Some of it painful, but part of the fabric of America.”
No one can change the past, but this present-day conversation has brought the community together. And that can certainly shape the future of the people on this Virginia mountaintop and in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave.