On a cold day in mid-January 1827, members of the Charlottesville community made their way to Monticello to attend the estate sale of Thomas Jefferson. Announced in newspaper advertisements in late 1826, the sale consisted of furniture, kitchen wares, farm equipment, livestock, “curious and useful” articles, and, most tragically, “130 valuable negroes.” This sale, along with others held over the next two years, tore apart families, separated husbands and wives and parents and children, and created a diaspora of Monticello’s enslaved community.
In this episode of our Mountaintop History podcast, Kyle Chattleton takes a deeper look at these sales and talks with Andrew Davenport, Public Historian at Monticello and Manager of the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, about what happened to many of the enslaved individuals after the dispersal sale, the important connection to the Getting Word Project, and about how they and their families’ lives are testaments to the triumph of the human spirit.
Kyle Chattleton: In 1898, Peter Fossett shared parts of his life story with a newspaper, the New York World. As a child, he was enslaved at Monticello by Thomas Jefferson. And at age 11, he was put up for auction. It was mid-January 1827. Fossett said, "We were scattered all over the country, never to meet each other again until we meet in another world."
This is Mountaintop History, a podcast from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at historic Monticello. My name is Kyle Chattleton.
What was the reasoning behind the 1827 dispersal sale? Some say an answer is simply debt. When Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, he left behind to his heirs $107,000 in money owed. The debt was the result of different factors: inadequate agricultural profits, economic crises, inherited debt, poor financial decisions, and an expensive lifestyle. The sale was, for Jefferson's heirs, a means to eliminate some of this debt.
A fuller explanation, however, is much more complicated, and is rooted in a centuries-old system of exploitation. Jefferson's wealth was primarily built on slavery, and slavery in America was based on race. The system promoted the false idea that some human beings are inherently inferior than others, and, as such, can be treated as property and oppressed through bondage and enslavement.
Slavery was enforced through violence. Physical violence, including the whip, but also emotional violence — the constant, looming threat that you could be forever separated from family and friends.
Peter Fossett was one of nearly 100 people sold over the course of five days. Additional dispersal sales would forever change the lives of 100 more. Some members of Fossett's family were purchased by other friends and relatives as a way to help keep the extended family together. They did not have enough funds to purchase everyone, however, and over the next 23 years, the Fossetts continued to work to buy and reunite their family. Peter Fossett was ultimately bought and freed by them in 1850, and went on to live in Ohio, where he became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and a renowned Baptist minister.
Thomas, Louisa, and Caroline Hughes were sold to John Winn. They were the eldest children of Wormley and Ursula Hughes, and all three were under the age of 15.
Burwell Colbert, freed by Thomas Jefferson in his will, purchased items at the sale like a carving knife, as well as a mule. But he was unable to purchase the freedom of his children, as they were instead enslaved by Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson's son-in-law, and were not put up for sale.
The documents that reveal the details of the dispersal sales, and what transpired afterward for these individuals and families, cannot convey the pain, suffering, and trauma that resulted.
Oral history is a crucial part in telling the story and legacy of Monticello's enslaved community. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello as a museum today, has been fortunate to work with descendants of Monticello's enslaved community through the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, which has been in existence for nearly 30 years now.
Through the Project, Karen Hughes White and Angela Hughes Davidson, descendants of Monticello's head gardener Wormley Hughes, have shared their family's love and history of gardening passed down to them by their ancestor.
Karen Hughes White: The thing that got to me right off the bat was when I heard the word "gardener," and all I think about is the flowers of the walk over to Asheville [...] flowers all over the place [...] and I kind of like flowers, too.
Angela Hughes Davidson: I remember when we first built that house in Marshall, and there was a lot of [...] rough ground, and Dad said, "if I could just get the ground green," he didn't care what would grow, but if it was green! [...] But he tried, he tried to get anything to grow!
Karen Hughes White: I mean, you know, it's, it's too... too much there... that are our traits and our habits not to feel roots and not to feel connected here.
Kyle Chattleton: Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely, a descendant of Monticello's Fossett families in addition to Ellen and William Craft, has looked to the story of her ancestors and connects it to her own fight for civil rights in the United States.
Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely: And I know from myself and my activism in the Civil Rights Movement, which we can talk about a little bit later, I really believed that I was the continuation, not the recreation, but sort of the continuation of my ancestors and that I had to do something in my lifetime to make a difference.
Kyle Chattleton: Through Getting Word, the descendant community has indelibly shaped Monticello's scholarship and interpretation. Because of their contributions, we know details about the stories of people who were enslaved here, as well as the stories of their descendants — stories of work, struggle, hope, and dreams that have added an essential human dimension to the understanding of life at Monticello and beyond.
Their stories tell of an American struggle to make real the ideas of liberty and equality found in the Declaration of Independence. Their lives are testaments to the triumph of the human spirit.
And now I'm joined by one of my colleagues, Andrew Davenport, to talk more about this subject. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us for this important topic. I was wondering if you could first introduce yourself to our audience and give them an idea of what your role is here at the Foundation.
Andrew Davenport: Thanks, Kyle, and it's such a pleasure to be on this podcast with you.
I'm Andrew Davenport, Public Historian of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. I am the Manager of the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, which records family histories of descendants of people enslaved at Monticello, and we are now celebrating our 29th year.
Kyle Chattleton: You and I have chatted previously about not only the 1827 dispersal sale, but the many other moments of community separation throughout Monticello's history. And you've discussed with me the emotions that the enslaved community faced during their lives, specifically through the threat and reality of such sales. Could you share some of those thoughts with our listeners?
Andrew Davenport: Over the course of his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson sold or separated, giving enslaved people as gifts to relatives, over 400 people, and at the end of his life, he enslaved an estimated 200 African Americans. We know of only a fraction of where those enslaved people ended up after the dispersal sales beginning in 1827.
Slavery was a series of catastrophic events for families and individuals. And the greatest fear for an enslaved person is to have been sold or separated from their loved ones, from their friends, their family, their wife, their children, or to see those individuals separated from them, in many cases, many, many miles away from each other.
When we think about the reactions of enslaved people, when Jefferson returns from France in 1789, there are accounts of a great jubilation in welcoming Jefferson home. That scene of jubilation can also be read, of course, as a scene of great relief that Jefferson, their enslaver, had returned and had not passed away, because every enslaved person in the United States knew what could happen, what would befall them at the death of their enslaver.
They heard of him almost drowning in the Rivanna River. They knew when he had a common cold. They knew that he was affected by some intestinal issue for years at a time. By seeing that it also would have registered that any moment, his end and theirs, their community's could come as well.
We know from Lafayette's assistant on their visit to Charlottesville in 1824 that the assistant went out to interview enslaved African Americans. We don't know the questions that were asked. We don't know exactly who Lafayette's assistant spoke to, but we do have some perspectives, and the unnamed enslaved people told their interlocutor that they were, "perfectly happy, that they were subject to no ill treatment, that their tasks were very easy, and that they cultivated the lands of Monticello with the greater pleasure, because they were almost sure of not being torn away from them, to be transported elsewhere, so long as Mr. Jefferson lived."
When he dies, Peter Fossett says, "sorrow came not only to the homes of two great men," speaking of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Fossett also says, but it came to the homes of Jefferson's enslaved people, as well, and that is because his passing was the point of no return for this enslaved community.
The perspectives that we do have all speak to this great fear and anxiety of what would happen. And we know that those fears were realized, they were terribly realized.
Kyle Chattleton: And that moment of realization, it must have been devastating for the community, especially when they came to realize the specifics of the contents of Jefferson's will.
Andrew Davenport: Yeah, one thing that I think a lot about is, as Jefferson's preparing his will in March, preparing to free a handful of enslaved people, the thought had to occur to enslaved people, that there was a chance, however slim, that Jefferson would have a kind of deathbed conversion, and possibly emancipate everyone. Even if it wasn't totally realistic of an expectation, I think that there's, it had to have gone through some minds, right, in the African American community.
Kyle Chattleton: I think you're right. Israel Gillette Jefferson tells us in his recollections that when Lafayette visited Monticello in 1824, he overheard Lafayette confronting Jefferson about slavery and telling him that he should free everyone on his plantation. And Israel Gillette Jefferson goes on to say, "This conversation was very gratifying to me and I treasured it up in my heart."
Andrew Davenport: Exactly. One, I wonder how word got around to the community that he had passed. And secondly, I wonder how word got around the community that he had not had that kind of awakening to the evils of slavery, that he had not freed them en masse. And I wonder what... I wonder what those feelings are, and those are the types of questions that we need to be asking ourselves, because whenever they learned that no more than just a handful of people were freed by his will, that was the moment, that was the true death knell of the enslaved community as it then existed and never would ever exist again. And that brought the untold devastation of, of these series of dispersal sales beginning six months later.
Kyle Chattleton: You also have a presence on Twitter and you use that space to share your thoughts about history with others. And a few days ago on January 15th, the anniversary of the 1827 dispersal sale, you created a Twitter thread and gave many people, including myself, some important insights. Specifically, how do you think the Getting Word Project is connected to this history?
Andrew Davenport: Getting Word was founded by historians Cinder Stanton and Dr. Diane Swann-Wright with Ohio consultant Beverly Gray in 1993. And it was founded with one question in mind, and that question is: where did people go? And that question is directly tied to the dispersals of African Americans generally across Thomas Jefferson's lifetime, but specifically it is also tied to the dispersal sales beginning in January 1827.
When Peter Fossett says, "We were scattered all over the country, never to meet each other again until we meet in another world," that is true of 1898 at the nadir of race relations in the U.S., as Rayford Logan says. Time would continue to pass, in Fossett's mind, and these old associations, family relations, would continue to disappear.
But Cinder Stanton, and Dr. Diane Swann-Wright, and Beverly Gray, and their successors Niya Bates, Aurelia Crawford, with the Getting Word Project, have worked to reconstitute those bonds. They've attempted and have been largely successful in reuniting people whose relatives were lost to one another because of slavery and because of the dispersal sales.
You know, in 1997, we had our first Getting Word reunion where descendants returned to Monticello for the very first time in, in a large group. And they gathered at the West Lawn, the likely spot where the dispersal sales of January 1827 occurred. There is that sacred return whenever we have a gathering.
Those historians worked to fulfill this kind of aspirational wish of Peter Fossett's, that people could, even if his own family couldn't be reconstituted, that their descendants could know one another.
You know the advertisements from after the Civil War where formerly enslaved people are, they're paying money to place in newspapers to locate their sons or their daughters or their wife or their parents who had been separated. And that work continues in a major way.
You know, I think the Getting Word Project inspires hope, and the founders of the Project knew that 30 years ago — they were ahead of the curve. So we'll just keep on doing the work.
Kyle Chattleton: This has been another edition of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. To learn more about this history, as well as the Getting Word Project, go to our website at Monticello.org.