Friday, July 20, 2018

Monticello

This is Monticello.
Eighteen years ago, my wife and I took a second honeymoon. We’d only been married a year, but through the five years we’d been together we had already taken several road trips. One of the great joys of my life was finding a partner who was as delighted by roadside attractions as I was.

For the year 2000 we would take the longest excursion we ever had, perhaps we ever will. Three weeks on the road, traveling south through Memphis and Asheville, taking a week with friends in a roundhouse on the Outer Banks before heading north again through the two Virginias.

Approaching Nashville, we spotted signs for Belle Meade Plantation and decided yes, we have time for this. This was before we had teenage children, whose vote would most likely be “no,” not for any unpleasant reason, but usually out of a desire to “get there,” meaning either our final destination or a hotel with a pool.

Like many stately homes of the old South that were not burned to the ground during the war, Belle Meade has been preserved as a museum, a celebration of antebellum gentility and prosperity. Owner John Harding bred horses, which is a fine thing to do.

The building remains, complete with bullet holes in the stone columns from a “skirmish” between Union and Confederate soldiers. What no longer remained was any evidence of where the 136 enslaved people who worked the plantation and kept it successful for the white family in the big house lived, and raised their families.

Thomas Jefferson
Statue by Alexander Galt, UVA Rotunda (detail)
At the turn of the 21st century, however, things were finally beginning to change. They acknowledged these enslaved men, women, and children -- with particular emphasis on the seventy-two who remained after the war to work as employees, as though that suggested slavery on this plantation was the “good” kind, and not that other kind.

The year before, in 1999, there was a screening of Gone With the Wind at the Cedar-Lee, celebrating the film’s sixtieth anniversary. That was the first and last time I will ever see that movie. AFI still rates it as one of the top ten films ever made, and for sheer craft and artistry, perhaps it is. I fucking hate that movie, one which minimizes the entire American slave trade with the phrase, “they weren’t miserable.”

At the tail end of our journey, we spent a night in Charlottesville and the day at Monticello. It was a lazy day for us, touring the house, yes but also strolling leisurely through the gardens. Our children are good travelers, but it has been a long time since my wife and I have taken a journey on our own, dined at our own speed, made appointments at our own speed, and were able to silently take in a garden, a view, a work of architecture or art without distraction or comment.

One feature she very much liked was the Garden Pavilion, a small room, made of brick, perched on the “little mountain” with a grand view of the valley, the land beyond. She fancied what a marvelous room that would be to sit in and think or write, for hours.

Now remember, this first visit was in 2000, only two years since DNA testing made scientifically evident that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least five children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved person who lived at Monticello. The white descendants of Jefferson were still not prepared to accept the results, many surely never will be. But already the message was being shared from the docents at the site that slavery was to be acknowledged, though that message was not yet very loud.

Garden Pavilion, 2000
We learned about Jefferson the statesman, the scientist, the scholar, the philosopher, the farmer -- though he never really got his hands dirty. We also saw that peculiar bed that opened to his changing room and his study, which used to seem cool but now all I can think is, well, that’s a difficult bed to make.

Of course, he never made it.

It was easier just to tell his story, because it is most evident. Not merely because he was the third President of the United States, but because all of his stuff is still right there, to look at. Following emancipation the housing for the enslaved people was destroyed, what little possessions they owned, lost.

This July 4th weekend, NPR rebroadcast a Studio 360 episode about Monticello, and having recently visited it seemed a bit tone deaf. When an historian described the many debts Jefferson left when he died, he mentions in passing the “contents” that were sold off to raise funds.

Historian Hugh Howard says, “They have an auction, and they sell much of the contents of the house, which don’t go for a lot of money. They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money. And they begin to think about selling the house.”

He just glosses over the slaves. They get sold. That’s over six hundred people with lives and families who were auctioned off to pay the debts of one man. This episode was a rebroadcast, actually recorded in 2012. Even as late as six years ago a white man can casually reference an obscene act of human cruelty as casually as he was reading a ledger.

The good news is that the tenor of the conversation at Monticello has evolved mightily over the past eighteen years. Today you can expect to hear the stories of many others who lived and worked at Monticello, people whose stories might otherwise have been lost to history.

Hemings Family cabin (reconstruction)
It was a hot day, a not atypical summer day in Virginia, when we visited late last month. Waiting for the house tour we took the “Slavery Tour,” a walk-and-talk along Mulberry Row, which was once a bustling engine of toil and industry, made of homes for those who worked there, as well as workshops and storehouses for the various trades that kept the plantation alive.

Some small buildings have been recreated during the past generation. But our guide mostly led us from one shaded area to another (where we were able to enjoy staggeringly beautiful vistas overlooking the valley) and told true stories of those who lived and worked the row.

Joseph Fossett, a member of the Hemings extended family, was one of the very few enslaved people granted freedom in Jefferson’s will. We heard of the arrangements Fossett made with individual whites to purchase his family members at auction, to be bought by Fossett (with interest) as he made his living in Ohio as a blacksmith. For his youngest, Peter, it was an additional 25 years in bondage before Fossett was able to bring him north to freedom. Joseph Fossett worked every day to pay for his own children’s freedom.

"They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money." Which. Indeed.

But our tour wasn’t some matter-of-fact description of a bygone era. Our tour guide had an agenda, comparing slavery to the modern prison system, reminding us that the scars of race-based slavery are with us today and are nowhere near invisible.

Because our tour guide, this young man, is from Charlottesville, raised in Charlottesville, this is his home. And he was present during the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in August 2017, and Heather Heyer, who was murdered by a Nazi-sympathizer during the rally, was a friend of his.

Taking the new house tour, we heard once again about Jefferson’s many great achievements, but also the names and the stories of those who worked below floors, exhibits which have also recently been developed to illustrate slave life at Monticello.

Garden Pavilion, 2018
Why so much emphasis on slavery? Isn’t that past? Isn’t it time to move on? That is an argument, but it’s a useless one. It is an argument of exclusion. Thomas Jefferson did a great many things, including lead a country, establish a university, write the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our democracy. He would never have had the time, the wherewithal to accomplish any of these things without the toil of the six hundred and seven people whose work gave him the time to sit and write and think.

And so we returned to the Garden Pavilion, from which Jefferson would have sat and thought and wrote, overlooking Charlottesville, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Rivanna River beyond. And in his day, he would also be keeping his eye on the hundreds of men and women downhill, harvesting all of his valuable tobacco.

Telling the story of Monticello requires telling the story of the people who literally built Monticello.

See also: Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson’s Relationship With Sally Hemings by Farah Stockman, New York Times, 6/16/2018

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