Terrance Heath

Slavery and Semantics

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 15, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics

Living in D.C. means that there are lots of historical sites and I can visit if I want. Living here for almost 15 years means that I've either visited them already or don't really think about visiting them anymore, because they're always there and I can visit them any time.

I don't even really remember the last time I visited a historical site. That is, with the exception of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Not because it was an especially memorable, but the visit was exceptionally memorable, because I ended up causing a bit of a scene. And right in the middle of the guided tour.


But it's been more than ten years since then. So I'd completely forgotten about that until I read about the history of slavery being whitewashed.

The Joel Lane Museum House in downtown Raleigh is where one of the state's most prominent families lived, sipping tea from expensive china and overseeing an empire of 6,000 acres.

It is also where slaves cooked and scrubbed and worked the fields -- but that gets scant mention at the privately owned museum.

Those who run the Lane House, like the leaders at many of the state's historic plantations, are uncomfortable talking about the practices that allowed wealthy owners to prosper. A new study from East Carolina University shows that, at many North Carolina plantations, talk of slaves takes a backseat to discussions of architecture, furnishings and gardens.

"It's a hard thing to talk about, because there's very little good you can say about it," said Belle Long, curator at the Lane House. "It's just awkward. It's such a black period in our history."

Long said she added a few mentions of slavery to the house tour last year. Before that, it was never mentioned to visitors.

According to the study, which examined the Web sites of 20 North Carolina plantations, seven don't mention slavery in their promotional materials. Only three were making strong efforts to reflect the slave experience.

slavecabin.jpgMy experience at Monticello went something like this. The tour followed what I guess was its usual course. We entered Monticello through the front door, walked through the first floor, and then out the back on to the rest of the grounds and the plantation.

At some point, we arrive at the slave quarters. Except I was surprise do learn that's not what they were called. They were called "servants' quarters" and all of the signage referred to "servants" and not "slaves." I was, to say the least, flabbergasted.

Now, mind you, this was probably around the time of the debate over Jefferson's relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings. This may also have been around the time that a DNA test made it all but impossible to deny (not that some didn't try) that Jefferson most likely had a relationship with and fathered children by one of his slaves.

Rumors that Jefferson was a bit more of a Founding Father than he cared to admit have appeared in print since 1802, when journalist James Callender charged Jefferson with having an out-of-wedlock affair with a slave who lived at Monticello, Jefferson's Virginia plantation. According to Callender, Jefferson (whose wife, Martha, had died in 1782) took a slave girl to Paris when he was serving there as American ambassador in 1787. "By this wench Sally, our president has had several children," Callender wrote in the Richmond Recorder.

Jefferson never deigned to answer Callender's allegation. But most of his descendants and the great majority of historians have dismissed it ever since. They cite the third American President's well-known opinion of race mixing--"a degradation to which no one...can innocently consent," he wrote in 1814--as well as his reputation as a paragon of principle and self-discipline.

Now even such stalwart Jefferson defenders as the members of the Monticello Association, who trace their pedigrees back to Jefferson's two daughters with Martha, seem to have backed down in the face of the DNA tests, which found that some (but not all) of Hemings descendants shared extremely rare genetic traits with living members of Jefferson's family. "Who knows?" says the group's secretary, Gerald Morgan, 75, who had once discounted the president's affair as a "moral impossibility." "It was probably [Thomas] Jefferson who was the father."

Now, in retrospect, I guess I understand how sensitive a topic it might have been for the folks associated with Monticello and with the preserving Jeffereson's legacy. After all, here's a guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, which included the famous phrase, "... all men are created equal..." Yet he owned slaves, and had a relationship with one, which resulted in several children. I can imagine the contradiction was difficult to address back then. One historian even called it a "moral impossibility," which can have more than one meaning.

Let us assume that the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was founded and maintained, or one or the other, in love, or commitment, or a sense of responsibility-in other words, somewhere along the spectrum of what we would consider responsible behavior. Let us assume, also, that the relationship was kept a secret from Jefferson's daughters and their children, although Sally Hemings may well have told her children while they were still living at Monticello. "We were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long," her son Madison remembered, "and were measurably happy." Is it possible that the black Jeffersons knew who their father was, while the white Jeffersons did not?

When we look at this story, or imagine it, from the perspective of Sally Hemings or Thomas Jefferson, it is one thing. When we try to see it from the point of view of the children, it is quite another. This is always the case in families. If Freud was right in the slightest, then the relationship between parent and child always embodies at least an element of conflict, of disappointment, of unrequited love. The secrets that look so understandable, so necessary for Thomas Jefferson, look quite another thing to his two families. How could you do this to us, his white family must have asked. Or rather, if we wish to confine ourselves to what we know, he could not have done this to us, they said. There are such things, after all, as moral impossibilities, which is another way of saying that our lives cannot make sense if such a thing is possible. If you were a white Jefferson, and your world was ordered by the knowledge that your father or grandfather loved you above all else, that you were entrusted with the knowledge of the real him, and if these things were more real to you than the features on the faces of your Hemings kin, then perhaps you would have lied, too.

Except that such a thing is possible. After all, the rumors about Strom Thurmond's African-American daughter turned out to be true, and the Thurmond family "struggled" with the knowledge of it.

Most southern whites are aware, if only vaguely of the race-related atrocities and mis-deeds of the past, but only in an abstract, disconnected way, because so rarely do those deeds actually come home in the form of flesh and blood members of their own families who took part. Great-grandpa's white Klan robes are likely hidden away in a trunk in some elderly relative's attic, unseen and probably unknown for a generation or more. The photo of grandma smiling at a local lynching, and pointing - along with other friends and neighbors - to the charred body hanging above, is probably in a photo album long since packed away and unopened for several decades. The charred finger and Uncle Billy Joe cut off as a souvenir has long since been lost. And the children of liaisons between powerful white men and powerless black women? Well, even if known they were never acknowledged, and usually either quietly went away or blended in to the background so as not to disturb the way things appeared to be.

"Strom rose to such stature, you just wonder how in the world this could have gone on," said Ms. Freeman, 64, a retired teacher in Lugoff, S.C. "My family always had help around the house. But it just seems Strom would have been above that."

"Above that." That statement leapt out at me to, as an echo of some of the objections to the liason between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. One historian went so far as to say it was a "moral impossibility" that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his slave, let alone fathered children by her.

And I'm sure the folks at Moticello "struggled" too. But at the time I went off. I said -- not shouting, but a voice loud enough for the tour group and the tour guide to hear -- "I can't believe this. What do they mean servants? These people weren't 'servants' they were slaves. They were property. 'Servants' eventually get their freedom eventually or even get paid. Servants are free to leave. These people weren't servants. They were slaves!"

My friends who were with me at time turned a bit red, but fully expected an outburst because I'd grumbled to them just moments before. The tour guide paused and looked nervously in my direction, perhaps to figure out if I was finished or just getting started. Quite a few people in the tour turned and looked. A few of them smiled, and even nodded. Maybe I was just saying what they were thinking.

As the picture above shows, Monticello has changed at least somewhat. At least the slave quarters are called what they were -- slave quarters.

I'm sure my little outburst didn't have much so much to do with that than with the realization by someone at Monticello that, however painful or embarrassing it may be. History doesn't go away just because you ignore it. Instead, it's more like a child trying to get the attention of a preoccupied parent. It pops up and jumps in your face, demanding your attention at the most inconvenient and inopportune moments.

And it will continue to do so until you give it the recognition and attention it deserves. Even then it doesn't go away, but it does become a bit easier to live with.

[Pics via crazytales562 and CharNewcomb.]

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