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Monticello was home to the Coleman and Henderson families for over a century, much longer than for anyone who held title to the property. Beginning in the 1860s, generations of these families greeted visitors at the Monticello gate and gave tours of the house and grounds. They worked first for the Levy family, Monticello’s owners from 1879 to 1923, as cooks, gardeners, ox team drivers, and household employees.
Eliza Coleman was Monticello’s gatekeeper during the Levy era. According to family tradition, she “came out of that Jefferson tree,” but her connection to Monticello’s enslaved families is not yet known. Her husband, Thomas Coleman, was the former slave of Joel Wheeler, who managed Monticello during and after the Civil War. Many Coleman descendants continue to live in Albemarle County. Eliza Coleman’s great-great-grandson Paul Harris was elected to Thomas Jefferson’s former seat in the House of Delegates in 1997 and again in 1999.
The Coleman family is linked by marriage to another family with long Monticello associations, from gatekeeper Willis Shelton to his grandson Willis Henderson, who was born at Monticello during the Levy ownership and worked for the family as a cook, waiter, and house guide. After the early deaths of his parents Lizzie and William Shelton (both of whom were buried at Monticello), he and his sister Mary Elizabeth Henderson were taken to live in New York City with Jefferson Monroe Levy’s sister, Amelia Levy Mayhoff. Henderson preferred Virginia to New York, and eventually returned to work at Monticello, staying on when the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation assumed ownership of the property in 1923. He greeted visitors there through the 1960s, including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.