Seminar Director Phil Schwarz with Dr. Dianne Swann-Wright
D r. Wright began by recounting the story of an African American visitor to Monticello a few years ago who walked Mulberry Row and remarked that he felt that every African American slave had been erased. There is a clear documentary record of the life of those enslaved at Monticello, and Dr. Wright says Monticello is moving to make that record public.
Over 600 people were held in bondage by Jefferson, up to 150-200 at any one time. The work week ran six days with Sundays off. On that day and nights, they tended to gardens and personal tasks. Children began to work at ten years of age; the younger children would be baby-sitters. There were African Americans in the fields, kitchens, stables - every aspect of life at Monticello.
Jefferson moved to protect his investments in human property; for example, he would excuse pregnant women from field work. He also fed and clothed the enslaved African Americans better than some other slave holders did at the time. He paid premiums for certain jobs, and had clothing specific to every job. There were many slave buildings all over the plantation, and the people were housed near their jobs. Jefferson did not believe in transatlantic slave trading, yet he sold off one third of his enslaved workers, and separated families in doing so.
He vigorously pursued runaways. There was resistance: burning, losing tools, pretending ignorance, slowing down.
It is difficult to reconcile Thomas Jefferson's spoken support of liberty and equality with his life as a slave holder. Anyone planning to study Jefferson must read his Notes on the State of Virginia .
One of the ways in which Dianne Wright is preserving and rediscovering the history of enslaved people at Monticello is through the Getting Word Project .. She and others traveled around the country to interview descendants of enslaved Monticello African Americans. Her sister Georgia is an integral part of this research.
Orality is the chosen form of transmission by many communities. Some prefer to tell rather than write down. African communities maintain a reverence of the oral tradition that is passed down. To change it would be to destroy it, so there is a built in validity to this method of preserving history.
Dianne shared some of the stories with the seminarians, and there will
be a book published on these stories in the upcoming months.