The story of Joseph and Edith Hern Fossett and their descendants connects a Monticello family to the struggle against slavery and the long fight for equality in its aftermath. In every generation, family members fought against social and political injustice by assisting fugitives, desegregating street cars, leading Union soldiers in battle, confronting American presidents, or sitting-in at hostile lunch counters.
While Joseph Fossett, the grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, was freed in Jefferson’s will, his wife and their children were sold to several different men at the estate sale in 1827. Fossett worked tirelessly as a blacksmith to earn money to free and reunite his family. Settling in Ohio in the late 1830s, he and his wife achieved the freedom of most of their children by the 1850s. The Fossetts actively participated in the Underground Railroad and several were prominent educational, political, and religious leaders in Cincinnati. Their daugher Ann-Elizabeth Isaacs and her husband sheltered fugitive slaves in their Ohio farmhouse. Their son Peter Fossett forged free papers for escaping slaves and was active in the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati.
Two of Joseph and Edith Fossett’s granddaughters married officers in the well-known 55th Massachusetts infantry regiment in the Civil War and one great-grandson, William Monroe Trotter, achieved fame in the early twentieth century as an uncompromising champion of equal rights. He vigorously fought lynching, discrimination, and segregation in the columns of his newspaper, the Boston Guardian. W.E.B. DuBois credited Trotter with “putting the backbone” into the platform of the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the NAACP.
Joseph and Edith's great-great grandaughter Ellen Craft Dammond (1916-2009), was a member of the influential women’s initiative on behalf of civil rights, Wednesdays in Mississippi. Ellen's daughter, Peggy Dammond Preacely, considers her activism in the civil rights movement a continuation of the fighting spirit of her ancestors: “It was simply in my blood.”