Tours tell story of Monticello through voices of its slaves

February 19, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Burwell Colbert was the only person who could understand Thomas Jefferson when the former president was on his deathbed. James Hemings and his sister, Sally, could have sued for their freedom in France when they accompanied Jefferson to Paris in the 1780s, but instead returned with the statesman. And Peter Fossett later said he didn't realize he was a slave until the day, at age 12, when he was put on the auction block.

Theirs are just some of the voices of enslaved men, women and children that become audible in "Answering the Bell: Working in the House at Monticello," a tour that runs each February at the Charlottesville, Va., home of the third president. (A second tour offered during Black History Month, the Plantation Community Tour, explores the lives of Mulberry Row, the center of African-American life at the estate.)

"Visitors who take the tours tell us that they are surprised and moved that we bring to light the humanity of the enslaved workers at Monticello, not just behind the scenes but front and center," says David Ronka, Monticello's manager of special programs. "These were people with families and lives and a great deal of pride in what they did. Many of them were in some degree devoted to Jefferson, his children and his grandchildren."

The tour is drawn from the transcribed statements of four former slaves who dictated their recollections to interviewers.

"We're very fortunate at Monticello," Ronka says. "Few historic sites can draw on any first-person accounts by slaves, and we have four. We have quotes from Jefferson and his grandchildren and from the slave narratives themselves. They all weave together into this marvelous tapestry of human interactions."

Narratives were provided by Israel Gillette Jefferson, an errand boy and laborer; Peter Fossett, a child who helped his father, a blacksmith, and his mother, a cook; Madison Hemings, an apprentice carpenter thought to be Jefferson's son; and Isaac Jefferson, a nail maker.

All told, 10 to 15 slaves worked in the mansion, and another 100 to 125 worked in the fields at any one time - a horrible irony, given Jefferson's public opposition to the institution of slavery on moral grounds. When Jefferson died in 1826, he freed five slaves in his will, but all five were adult males with marketable skills working on other plantations. An additional 130 were auctioned off to pay Jefferson's debts, which totaled $107,000 - an astronomical sum in 1826.

So, Joseph Fossett was freed, while his not-quite adolescent son, Peter, was sold in 1827. Peter tried to escape twice to join his parents in Ohio, but was recaptured each time. The family was not reunited for a heartbreaking 23 years, when Joseph finally managed to purchase his son's liberty.

"Most of the visitors who come to Monticello want to learn about the things written in the history books," Ronka says. "They want to learn about Lewis and Clark, or see the automated doors. But these tours show visitors how important a presence in the house the slaves were. The house literally and figuratively rests on their labor."

Getting there
Transportation: Driving is the least expensive and quickest option. Gas for the 325-mile round trip should cost about $38.

Lodging: $100 per night plus taxes at a budget hotel; about $200 per night plus taxes for luxury accommodations.

Other attractions: The University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded, is a must. At his behest, former President James Monroe bought Ash Lawn-Highland and lived there from 1799 to 1823. At the Downtown Mall, you can browse antique shops and boutiques, attend a play or ice skate.

Dining: Michie Tavern, called one of the area's "five historical gems," offers family-friendly Southern cooking. The staff wears period garb and conducts tours of the 1784 building. Many historic buildings house restaurants serving fare that ranges from casual to gourmet.

For more information, go to pursuecharlottesville.com.

If you go
"Answering the Bell: Working in the House at Monticello" tours will be held at noon and 2 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 28. The tour is included in the general admission price of $17 for adults; $8 for children ages 6-11. Kids 5 and younger are admitted free. Call 434-984-9822 or go to monticello.org.

Getting there
Transportation: Driving is the least expensive and quickest option. Gas for the 325-mile round trip should cost about $38.
Lodging: $100 per night plus taxes at a budget hotel; about $200 per night plus taxes for luxury accommodations.
Other attractions: The University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded, is a must. At his behest, former President James Monroe bought Ash Lawn-Highland and lived there from 1799 to 1823. At the Downtown Mall, you can browse antique shops and boutiques, attend a play or ice skate.
Dining: Michie Tavern, called one of the area's "five historical gems," offers family-friendly Southern cooking. The staff wears period garb and conducts tours of the 1784 building. Many historic buildings house restaurants serving fare that ranges from casual to gourmet.
For more information, go to pursuecharlottesville.com.

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