Exhibition Tells the Story of Families Enslaved at Monticello

Beginning Friday March 15, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History will present Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello, a new exhibition that examines the lives and legacies of six enslaved black families at Thomas Jefferson’s  famous Virginia plantation and the inherent contradictions of the Founding Father’s Enlightenment Era-informed ideas about individual rights and his status as a person who enslaved more than 600 human beings.

 The exhibition, which runs through June 22, presents more than 300 objects including works of art, documents, and artifacts unearthed at Monticello as well as oral histories of descendants of enslaved families who lived on the plantation.  

The exhibition was initially curated in 2012 by the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and has been seen by more than one million visitors at museums in Washington DC, Atlanta, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Dallas. 

The Wright's CEO Neil A. Barclay said the Wright Museum’s presentation of the show differs from previous iterations because it shifts the focus of the narrative to the enslaved families.

“We at The Wright feel an awesome responsibility to ensure that our take on this unique American story reflects our status as a preserver and champion of African-American history and culture,” said Barclay, who became the museum’s chief executive in mid-January. “As it will be presented at The Wright, the exhibition puts the lives of six enslaved families who lived at Monticello at the center of the narrative, presenting them as fully-realized humans who navigated slavery’s pain, loss, and unspeakable oppression with resilience and faith, and not just plot devices for a story about Jefferson. Our insistence that the lens through which the story is told was shifted to the perspective of enslaved families is the most exciting aspect of The Wright’s presentation of the exhibition.”

Jefferson is venerated as one of the most consequential champions of individual rights in American history, but he also enslaved hundreds of black people and fathered six children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved black girl who was only 16 years old when she first gave birth to Jefferson’s child. He was 46 years old.  Barclay said the exhibition boldly confronts Jefferson’s moral and intellectual contradictions.

“How can a man who once called slavery ‘an abominable crime’ also enslave his own children? This exhibition seeks to answer that and other difficult questions about Jefferson’s moral and intellectual duality,” said Barclay.

The exhibition also features oral histories from the descendants of six families that were enslaved at Monticello. Barclay said the exhibition allows attendees to come face to face with the legacy of slavery through the eyes of enslaved families and their descendants.

“This exhibition rescues these American voices from obscurity, recognizing their unique perspective on American history and how the twisted legacy of slavery shaped it,” Barclay said.

There is an additional charge for viewing Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello on top of the museum’s entry fee of $8 for adults and $5 for youth (ages 3-12) and seniors (ages 62 and older). Admission for members and children under age 3 is free. For group sales, call 313-494-5808.  The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is open on Tuesday through Saturday from until 9  until 5 PM and Sunday from 1 PM until 5 PM.

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Kim Trent, 313-657-4759, ktrent@compass-strategies.com