Oral History Project Grounds Story of Monticello in the Lives of the Enslaved

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's House, in Virginia.

For Smithsonian magazine, author Andrew M. Davenport discusses the work of Getting Word, an oral history project that, since 1993, has collected histories of African American families who lived at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, Monticello.

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.

The fact of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship is now considered a “settled matter” by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, due to the work of Getting Word and years of scholarship by historian Annette Gordon-Reed. A space where Hemings is thought to have lived is now open, for the first time, to Monticello’s public.

At one point, according to Davenport, “about 400 enslaved laborers” called Monticello home. Getting Word conducted more than one hundred interviews and additional supplemental archival research over the years; they’ve unearthed a sprawling black community at the plantation, made up of individuals whose lives most people know little about.

In the summer of 2016, [descendants] 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.”

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.

Later, Davenport describes how Getting Word got its start and considers how the project will likely change how the nation engages with narratives of its founders.

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…

“Jefferson was not a great man unto himself,” says [descendant] 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.”

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