These pervasive separations are symptomatic of an issue that historical sites such as presidential plantations face with telling truthful, full-bodied stories about slavery—stories that are integrated, ubiquitous, and inescapable. More often than not, the true history and legacy of slavery takes a back seat to tales of founding-era exceptionalism.
I’ve taken the house tour at Monticello three times in the past three years, and each visit followed a similar pattern: First, Jefferson is glorified for his intellectual curiosity, scientific discoveries, architectural innovations, and avant-garde tendencies. Next, he’s lauded for his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence. There’s an offhand mention of the fact that, in his lifetime, he owned more than 600 slaves.
The tour would then carry on to Martha Jefferson’s sitting room, where their family history is described in definitive and finite terms: “Jefferson was married [to Martha] for 10 years and fathered six children, two of whom survived. Their names were Mary and Martha.”
After decades of contentious debate surrounding the legitimacy of Hemings’s connection to Jefferson, Monticello has finally acknowledged in unqualified terms that the president was, in fact, the father of Hemings’s offspring. “She was his concubine.” “Sally Hemings had at least six children fathered by Thomas Jefferson.” These are the bold new phrases that the current Hemings exhibit uses to address the relationship between these two American figures.
Monticello first embarked on this truth-telling mission by excavating the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and labored at Monticello, and by seeking to honor those nameless and forgotten souls buried near the site’s current-day visitor parking lot. “The opening of the ‘Life of Sally Hemings’ exhibit [and] the ‘Getting Word’ oral-history project … is the culmination of decades of research on slavery and the lives of enslaved people at Monticello,” Niya Bates, the public historian of slavery and African American life at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, told me. “The goal of these new spaces is to not only acknowledge the humanity of the enslaved community, but to tell a more truthful and inclusive history of Monticello, Jefferson, and the founding era in a way that challenges people to think about all of the people that it took to found our country.”
Despite these efforts, separation still persists at Monticello and other historical sites. Of the estimated 450,000 people who visit Jefferson’s mansion each year, only 150,000 take the “Slavery at Monticello” tours. And The Hermitage, Mount Vernon, the Hofwyl-Broadfield plantation in Georgia, and the Colonial Williamsburg historic area, among others, continue to either segregate slavery or ignore it altogether.
It goes without saying that there are tremendous risks involved in telling an integrated story. For one, conservative donors can have huge influence over the way a site is run. Yet despite the challenges, there are a number of presidential plantations, house museums, and historical sites that are making a deep impact on the discussion of slavery by actively integrating the stories of the enslaved.