There are those who still hold President Thomas Jefferson to the highest esteem. For those who do, to involve him in the activities of the Slave Dwelling Project can be somewhat offensive to some of them. I’ve gotten push back from some of those who still question the DNA evidence that President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with the enslaved Sally Hemings. Yet there are those who would prefer that the whole story of this founding father be told, the good, the bad and the ugly. I, as the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, am in that camp. While it is easier for some to accept the fact that President Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, it is harder for some to accept the fact that he fathered children with Sally Hemings.
With the aforementioned information, the stage was now set for my second consecutive sleepover at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson. In 2015, we broke through the bureaucracy and were allowed to spend a night at the site on the mountain with some of the descendants of Sally Hemings and others who were enslaved there.
Again this year, I would be joined by some of the descendants of those who were enslaved by President Thomas Jefferson. An added enticement was that the NBC Today Show would be there to film elements of the sleepover. While this was great news, I had to control my enthusiasm, because I had been led down this road before only for another major network to back out of the deal at the last minute. Delving into the history of the enslaved in this nation was not sexy enough for them.
Twenty plus descendants of the enslaved were scheduled to participate in the sleepover and they were a mixture of some who had participated last year and some who would participate for the first time. This doubled the number that had participated in the sleepover last year and their ages ranged from seniors to teenagers and they came from as far away as Ohio and New York.
Our first scheduled event was dinner at the visitor’s center. To my surprise, Harry Smith of NBC and his film crew did show up for the filming of some segments of the events planned for the weekend. Presentations on the status of recreating Mulberry Row and the Slave Dwelling Project were given before we were given instructions on how the rest of the night was scheduled to proceed.
Upon arrival at the site on the mountain, we were greeted by musicians and dancers who were trained in the African tradition. A period of drumming and dancing ensued and some of the descendants of the enslaved participated as spectators and dancers with a great time being had by all.
The time came for us to choose our space where we would sleep. Last year I slept in the cook’s room and it was my desire to sleep there again but I was willing to yield that position if one of the descendants wanted the space if the research had revealed that their enslaved Ancestors had slept there. The smoke house was ruled out for sleeping because it had been sprayed earlier in the day to rid it of a hornet’s nest. Prinny Anderson, Terry James and I chose the kitchen. We were joined by a fourth person, Mary, which made the space somewhat tight. Mary is an employee at Poplar Forrest another site that President Thomas Jefferson owned. Mary was on a scouting mission to see how the Slave Dwelling Project could be implemented at Poplar Forrest.
The campfire discussion was hot and heavy and laced with various elements of slavery and the legacy that it has left on this nation. Was Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the fourteen year old enslaved Sally Hemings consensual or was it rape? As you would imagine, tempers flared and tempers cooled as this and other matters were discussed.
Those who were not staying at the site began to depart. At 11:00 pm, we were reminded of the meteor shower that would occur throughout the rest of the night. Some of us took up our positions to gaze at the sky. I became more frustrated as most of the participants were seeing the meteors that I was not.
Morning came and Terry and Mary had left the space. Prinny and I engaged in a conversation about the future of the Slave Dwelling Project. I began to walk the grounds to take in the site and conduct my usual routine of taking photographs. Montpelier staff brought coffee and it seemed to arouse all of those who would indulge. Harry Smith from NBC and his film crew had arrived and were already conducting their interviews. I mustered a group to join me at a section of the house that contained many fingerprints of the enslaved Ancestors. I got joy from knowing that it was highly likely that the descendants of the enslaved were possibly touching the finger imprints of their enslaved Ancestors.
We proceeded to the visitor’s center for a hot breakfast and a debriefing of the previous night’s activities. Through the many exchanges, I got a better understanding that although the Hemings family saga is well known, many other families were enslaved by President Thomas Jefferson. After we thought that we had exhausted all of the input from the previous night, the youngest male who spent the night with us asked the question, “What was hope to the Enslaved?” As he described his experience on the mountain where the enslaved occupied their spaces, he pondered hope for the enslaved as being escape, procreation or death. It was his thoughts that brought many in the room to tears.
So far in this journey, I have spent nights at three sites of former US Presidents who were slave owners. I have nine more to go. Thank you Hermitage, Montpelier and of course Monticello for your willingness to incorporate the stories of the enslaved in your interpretation of your sites. We must convince other sites, presidential or otherwise, to come up to the standards that you have set. You are a part of a major step in changing an incomplete narrative of this nation’s history.
I have taken advantage of the Slave Dwelling Project’s Monticello sleep over twice. One objective is to place the descendants in cabins that their ancestors may have slept. On the first sleep over, I slept in a cabin identified as belonging to one of my ancestral families, the cabin identified as the home of George Granger, Jr., who is an ancestral uncle. On this past sleep over, me and my granddaughter, Jade, slept in the cook’s quarters. My relationship to the Monticello cooks begins with a great grandmother, Ursula, and extends to members of the Hemings family who were uncles and aunts.
Prior to retiring for the night we gathered around a camp fire like our ancestors. The campfire gathering included the descendants of the enslaved and plantation owners. This was clearly out of the pages of history for it was well known that during evening hours it was not uncommon for the entire Monticello community to congregate around the camp fire.
Among those in attendance during my first sleep over were descendants of the Jefferson/Randolph/Wayles, Hemings, Granger, and Herns families as well as my son Jay. This past year included members of the Jefferson/Randolph/Wayles, the Gillette family as well as representatives of Hemings family. On both occasions the youngest was my granddaughter, Jade.
On my first sleep over the discussion centered on what life was like during the time of Jefferson compared to the Monticello Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation’s (Foundation) presentation of Monticello. Most of the discussion focused on the positive aspects of the Monticello community, yet acknowledged that the slavery/economic system was demeaning and intolerable. This brings me to my expectations and the reality of spending one night on the mountain. I had romantic visions of an emotional in body experience from my ancestors. My romantic version of a night on the mountain did not occur; my reality was more of an intellectual understanding of my ancestors’ living condition from 1724 to 1826. I missed my central heating system, indoor plumbing, and electricity. Although these comforts my ancestors did not have, there must have been a fireplace to keep you warm at night or in the case of George Granger the forge must have doubled as fire place. There was no indoor plumbing, thus there must have been a privy along Mulberry Row or chamber pots must have been available. Lighting must have been supplied from oil lamps. I thought I was prepared for the night air, I was wrong! Upon awakening the Monticello sun rise was beautiful! However, I realized that my ancestors’ would have arisen to a different world. Monticello was a working farm whose workers had specific jobs to attend. The smell of food cooking would be in the air mixed with the scent of the earth being tilled, the noise of artisans at work, animals being feed, and Jefferson’s family members being attendant too.
I found last year’s discussion focused on plantation life during Jefferson’s stewardship of Monticello. This year the camp fire discussion seemed to be focused on the effects of slavery on today’s society and the “negative” aspects of slavery at Monticello. It appeared to me that we were unable to have an objective discussion of the inter-personal relationships between the enslaved population and white population. Thus our discussion was more aggressive than last year with some unable to consider the views of others to put slavery in a more human/historical context. This reinforced my theory that understanding the “peculiar institution” is far more complex than we want to admit.
The Slave Dwelling Project in cooperation with the Foundation has afforded me the opportunity to internalize my concept of American slavery. Although I cannot walk in the shoes of my ancestors, I was able to sleep and walk on the grounds my maternal ancestors lived. There are few words that can describe the emotional/intellectual intensity that I experienced in the two nights. I am taking away a new concept of slavery. The events sponsored by the Foundation has introduced me to many people who are blood relatives and “extended family” who contributed to the development of our country.
For future session, I suggest that the campfire have a lead person to discuss life on the plantation. That person must have knowledge of social interaction of the enslaved and white community. This information has been researched and written about within the last ten years.
My name is April, I participated in my second descendant sleepover at Monticello this month. Last year, my mother and I slept with Joe, this year, I would bring my son. I felt it important to include the next generation in this process to pass our story on. My second go provided quite a different experience for me. Last year, I was acutely aware of my freedom. The freedom, I would have to rise during the night, if I needed to. As well as to get up in the morning and go home to my comfortable bed. This year, I was not. Last year, I slept under the main house in a cellar, which was full of light and laughter. This year, I did not. I was placed in the ironworks building. I slept on a brick floor within a hairs space of my son’s head and my cousin’s feet. I slept in the dark. I slept against a wall that was crawling with spiders, as something other than my cousin nibbled around my feet. The cabin was hot and dusty and the brick was hard. My cousin’s body blocked the tiny door preventing any exit from the small space. Our “window” less than 3 inches open provided little relief from the hot August night. As well as no thought of an exit as well. I was very much aware that I was here until someone else let me out. I was very much aware of what my ancestor’s experienced. Trapped. To be unable to walk out of a room, to be unable to walk off a job, to ‘own a home’ and not be able to move from it, when I tire of it. There is much conversation about Jefferson’s slaves being treated better than others. One observer used the word “more privileged” to describe this life. I offer this.. a sugarcoated cage is still a cage.
FAMILIES WOVEN TOGETHER
For the second year, the Slave Dwelling Project had an overnight stay on Mulberry Row at Monticello, home place to some of my ancestors and relatives. The people who stayed overnight are all descendants of Monticello’s enslaved community, some of whom had stayed last year and some of whom had come for their first sleepover. These descendants are connected to one another and to Monticello through several family lines, through shared history, and through the oral history project known as “Getting Word.”
Friday evening, we had dinner and a program, a chance for conversation around a bonfire after dark, and then breakfast and sharing in the morning, ending with a ceremony to honor the ancestors at the African American cemetery. What stood out for me from our conversations were all the ways our connections to each other and to the place have been woven together through time and across distances.
But let me start with the stories that got this line of thinking going. Saturday morning, after a few people had shared, one woman began by saying that her sleep time started with a spider walking across her face, but got better from there! She must have nerves of steel. But old buildings have spiders in them, so I didn’t think any more about it. Then, after a few more people spoke, a young woman said she’d seen several spiders in her sleeping spot, but she figured they were minding their own business and stayed calm about them. My skin shivered at the thought!
Since the overnight, those sleepover spider stories wouldn’t leave me alone. I got to thinking about how spiders appear in the legends and myths of many cultures. The Ashanti tell stories of Anansi the Spider, a clever, resourceful character who came to be associated with trickery, resistance and survival. Storytellers say that Anansi tales weave together the connection African Americans have to their ancestors in West Africa and to all members of the African diaspora.
The ancient Greeks also had a spider character. Arachne was a weaver, a woman bold enough to depict true stories of the bad behavior of the gods and kings, a woman bold enough to challenge the goddess Athena. Athena turned Arachne into a spider, who spins and weaves for eternity.
Finally, some of the Native American peoples tell stories of Grandmother Spider. Sometimes she is the inventor of writing; sometimes the stories say she created the stars in the skies. Although small, she is always seen as powerful.
After thinking about these traditions of spider stories, I could see a connection to our overnight stay and the group that came for the occasion. We talked a lot about our family connections, about family lines, about how we are related to one another, and who in our families have been the keepers of the history. In these stories I could hear powerful and important threads going back over the years, to the past, back to a starting location in Virginia via Ohio, Florida, Washington, DC, New York, North Carolina, and Connecticut. The family stories also clarified how the people in the room are interconnected with one another. The Gillettes and the Hemings migrated from state to state and town to town together. Where there was a Gillette descendant, there would likely be a Hemings descendant, and this pattern lasted for at least two or three generations.
Around the bonfire at night, there had been a good deal of conversation about what the lives of the ancestors during slavery, there at Monticello, would have been like. We imagined the relentlessness of the workdays, the oppression of the master’s surveillance, and the constant fear of sexual assault, physical punishment and separation from family members. The conversation did not sugarcoat; it spoke truth however painful, just as the Greek spider character Arachne did. Yet we imagined the ancestors were like Anansi, able to eke out freedoms, moments of joy, and even opportunities to make extra money, by being clever and skillful. Through their resourcefulness, the ancestors of the Getting Word community carry on important traits of their ancestors in Africa and their fellow enslaved throughout the New World.
As people told their family stories, it was evident that their ancestors were empowered, empowered to exercise skills and trades, empowered to start churches and schools, and empowered to make lives of substance. They may have had modest beginnings, but like Grandmother Spider, they wove lives for themselves and their families, lives full of traditions and connections that have lasted until today.
At the end of my reflections, I have let go of my queasiness about the live spiders and found, once again, deep admiration and respect for all the families whose roots are in Mulberry Row, as well as gratitude for the ways in which we are woven together as a Monticello community, linked through the generations, connected across the country.