While studying as a undergraduate, I knew I loved the American Revolution. I loved the
individuals, the ideas, the atmosphere…everything! As seniors, everyone had to take a class where they wrote one huge research paper and I started with one idea, directly related to previous research I had completed and as I dug into Thomas Jefferson, I couldn’t pull myself away. I shifted gears and focused on this amazingly, enigmatic individual. When I read his words, I felt them. I celebrated his successes and could mourn his losses. I continued on this Jefferson binge and wrote my entire MA thesis on
his philosophy for education.
Now, although I would drop my entire life to follow a reincarnated Jefferson on whatever pursuits he decided, I recognize his faults. When I finally had to opportunity to travel to Monticello in 2012 I soaked up every inch of his awesomeness, but I was fully aware of his life as a southern planter. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He also had a long relationship with one slave, Sally Hemings, fathering several children with her.
I can’t remember how well the docent at Monticello addressed issues of slavery. I knew the facts, so I was far more wrapped up in looking at everything I could. Furthermore, I was not yet in the public history field, so I wasn’t as attuned to its issues. I know, however, that in recent years, Monticello has come a long way in addressing some of these tougher items. In a recent article in the Richmond Times I discovered that one of Jefferson and Hemings’s descendants has recently been hired as their community engagement officer. According to the article, Gayle Jessup White will work to help bring the stories of Jefferson and, importantly, his slaves “off the mountain.”
It is important for museums, particularly historic sites whose residents have been enshrined for one reason or another, to acknowledge that not all pieces of their site’s history may be comfortable. It may be painful. It may be scary on some level, but only by acknowledging it, learning about it, and accepting it as part of OUR story as human beings, are we able to make meaningful connections with all audiences. That is the only way we can overcome some of these experiences and strive to make positive changes for the future.