Current Missouri History Museum Exhibition Confronts Paradox Of Slavery At Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

By Ashley Ray
In Culture
Ann-Elizabeth Fossett Isaacs  (Ebony Magazine, November 1954)

Ann-Elizabeth Fossett Isaacs
(Ebony Magazine, November 1954)

Most Americans know Thomas Jefferson for his drafting of the Declaration of Independence, which boldly proclaims all men are created equal. This stands in stark contrast to the fact that Jefferson owned approximately 607 persons during his lifetime. The current exhibition at the Missouri History Museum, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” explores this contradiction between ideals and practice.

According to Susan Stein, who is the senior curator and vice president of museum programs at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the Monticello plantation and the role of slaves have been researched since the 1950s and presented to the public, including tours, for 20 years. But the information needed a wider audience, so TJF teamed up with the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to open this exhibition which received around one million visitors when it opened at the Smithsonian in 2012.

“Paradox of Liberty” coming to St. Louis seemed a natural fit to Stein, as “The Missouri History Museum is one of the top history museums in the nation, and because St. Louis was the jumping-off point for the Lewis and Clark expedition.  There is a powerful connection to Jefferson in St. Louis.”

The exhibition centers on six enslaved families, explains Stein, and shows the viewer what their lives were like on the plantation through archaeological artifacts, documents, museum objects and the interviews of 170 descendants of the slaves who lived and worked there. Where many picture the Deep South and cotton fields when thinking about slavery, this exhibition shows that many of these people were skilled laborers and artisans whose descendants went on to do great things, such as become officers in the Union Army, civil rights activists and legislators.

By framing the exhibition around these six families, the viewer gains an intimate understanding of what life was like for these people, and learns not only of their everyday lives, skills and family life independent of Jefferson, but also of their struggle for education, achievement and freedom.

Isaac (Granger) Jefferson; Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

Isaac (Granger) Jefferson; Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

As Lonnie Bunch, director of the NMAACH says of the exhibit, “Understanding the lives of enslaved people adds to our understanding of history, and our understanding of race relations today. We cannot have a clear view of Jefferson, or the founding of our nation, if we leave slavery out of the story.”

“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” is on display now at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, until March 2, 2014.

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