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Monticello: The House



Should You Have Your Cake and Eat It Too?


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Neda at the site of an old slave cabin on Mulberry Row
The midday August sun beat down heavily on Isaac's shoulders. Summer days were always the hardest, not the time to celebrate carefree, school-free days. The concept of school was a foreign one to the children of slaves such as Isaac, because it was illegal for anyone to teach them to read or write. For Isaac, summer was the season when daylight hours -- and work hours -- seemed to stretch into infinity. Isaac bent down, tending to the vegetables in the garden. All around him, the sounds of activity hammered into his head. Milk pails clattered in the dairy and linens boiled in the washhouse, while in the distance carpenters cut down trees to be used for fence rails, logs, and firewood.

Nearby, little Betty chased after Priscilla, who shrieked with excitement. Isaac remembered those days as a four- or five-year-old: Life was so free, you practically didn't even realize you were a slave. Running after the two girls, nine-year-old Jane cried out for them to mind the pea and potato plants and to stay out of Isaac's way. One of her moccasins slipped off as she ran, and while she stooped to pick it up, Betty and Priscilla darted off, away from her reach. Once Jane's feet stopped growing, she would have the luxury of real shoes, but for now, these crude moccasins that never stayed on would have to do. Jane was aware that here on Mulberry Row, freedom was something dreamed about, not possessed. She was responsible for taking care of Betty and Priscilla, and many of the other young children. On this day, she had yet to begin her torturous work chores.

Elizabeth just turned 11 last month. She now spends all her days spinning cloth. Her fingers are small and nimble, but she is still a bit inexperienced, and needs guidance from some of the older children. Not used to the long days, Elizabeth lets out an exhausted sigh, without realizing that there are six more hours until sunset.

Hanging out by the blacksmith shop and vegetable garden
Next door, at the nailery, Elizabeth's brother Bagwell wipes the sweat from his brow. All young boys learn to make nails, and Bagwell was no exception. Over the past three years, he had manufactured countless nails for sale by his master. Bagwell was quite skilled and had quickly become one of the most efficient workers around. His master was pleased; he would come in during the mornings and weigh the raw nailrod, doling it out to the fourteen boys working there. During a typical day, 5,000 to 10,000 nails would be manufactured in about seven different sizes. At the end of the day, the master would come back and measure how much each boy had produced. Those who wasted the least would be rewarded. Bagwell occasionally received food or new clothes -- suits dyed blue or red -- to encourage him to keep working so hard. Bagwell would soon be sixteen -- an important milestone... though not one that involves a driver's license. At sixteen, decision would be made about whether Bagwell would be kept at Mulberry Row to work at a trade, or sent down to become a field hand at Shadwell (another part of his master's huge, 5,000-acre plantation). Given Bagwell's talents, he would most likely be kept on the hill as a blacksmith, joining the other men who labored away, shoeing horses and repairing farm equipment.

Finally, after an eternal day, the sun has set and the workday is done -- and so it will continue tomorrow and the next day and the next day. The Sundays off are not nearly enough to recuperate from the backbreaking work during the week. For now, Isaac attempts to nourish his overworked body with some food from his weekly ration of cornmeal, cured pork, and molasses. His living quarters are crowded; he shares a small cabin on Mulberry Row with nine others. But for now, Isaac is absorbed in his own thoughts. As he eats, he takes a cowrie shell out of his pocket, rolling it with great intention between his fingers. He finds peace in this movement, for feeling the shell in his hand is like holding a small piece of his African homeland, where the cowrie is used in religious ceremonies. Closing his eyes, Isaac says a quick prayer, hoping for the strength to make it through another grueling day.

The other side: Jefferson's beautiful home
Across the hedges and past the flowerbeds, another man sits on a chair that was made by Isaac's father. He begins to eat a choice meal, prepared by Betsy's aunt, under the roof of a house built by Jane's grandfather. Instead of sharing a cramped space with many other people, he relaxes in a spacious 33-room home.

Only yards away from Mulberry Row, this man, Thomas Jefferson, lived a life of contradictions. He declared that "all men are created equal," but during his lifetime, he owned as many as 600 slaves at a time. In a typical year, he owned about 200 slaves, almost half of whom were children under the age of sixteen. The opulence of his home at Monticello greatly contrasted with the poverty and degradation at the bottom of the hill.

Jefferson called slavery "an abominable crime," but continued to be a slaveholder until his death. He only freed a handful of slaves -- all children or relatives of Sally Hemings, a slave girl who worked as a chambermaid at Monticello. This presents another twist to the story as it has been alleged that Jefferson was actually the father of Sally's children. This claim was strengthened by recent DNA evidence. It has also been noted that the Hemings children received better treatment and better clothing than other slaves at Monticello. Beverly and Harriet Hemings (Sally's daughters) were allowed to walk away from slavery into free society, and five other Hemings were freed in Jefferson's will.

Through the generations, stories of these descendants of Jefferson, as well as the family bonds at Monticello, have been kept alive through oral tradition. A current project called Getting Word is exploring this oral history by interviewing descendants of slaves at Monticello, many of them from the Hemings line. "My grandmother talked about the beauty of Monticello and the ugliness of slavery," explains a descendant, Betty Ann Fitch.

There is no doubt Jefferson accomplished many great things in his lifetime. Yet he was not perfect -- and owning hundreds of human beings is no small fault. Some argue that at least Jefferson treated his slaves better than the average slaveholder. The whip, for instance, was used only in extreme situations. But, it was still used. And no matter how good their treatment was, the workers on Mulberry Row were still slaves. Yes, Jefferson was an exceptional man, but there was nothing exceptional about slavery in Monticello.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

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Irene - "Great Blacks in Wax": a museum that packs a punch
Stephanie - The Natchez Indians give the old heave-ho to the French
Rebecca - Mose, Florida: Paradise among mosquitoes and tropical heat
Neda - Dive! Dive! Discover the secrets of the Henrietta Marie
MAD - Reparations: Payback for slavery
Nick - The rebellion is on!