Against almost insurmountable odds, African Americans living at Monticello strove to learn their letters—from friends and relatives or from Jefferson’s grandchildren. They cherished becoming literate and passed on to their descendants a thirst for education. In his 1873 recollections, Israel Gillette Jefferson explained, "I consider what education I have as a legitimate fruit of freedom."
Peter Fossett, who was taught to read by Jefferson’s grandson, secretly taught his fellow slaves to read and write under the threat of harsh punishment. Many parents made sacrifices to provide their children with good schooling, and descendants today, many of them teachers, recall how their elders stressed the importance of education.
Descendants of Monticello’s Hern and Hemings families were actively involved in the early struggles of African Americans to achieve educational opportunities. Generation after generation, David and Isabel Hern’s descendants have been teachers, including Zeta Brown Nichols and Martha Hearns Boston. When Martha Boston was still in elementary school in rural Albemarle County, Virginia, her parents sent her to Baltimore so she could get a better education.
Elizabeth Hemings’s great-great-grandson Robert Scott attended the Charlottesville Freedmen’s School after the Civil War and became one of the first black teachers in Albemarle County. His nephew Jesse Scott Sammons was teacher and principal of the school that became Albemarle Training School, the first black high school in the county. Madison and Mary Hemings’s great-granddaughter Nancy Lee's goal was to become a teacher. When there were no places for black teachers, she got her master’s in social work, had a distinguished career in Pittsburgh, and received many community service awards. After graduating from Fisk University, Colbert descendant Mabel Middleton taught English in Mississippi. She obtained her doctorate from Southern Illinois University and chaired the English Department at Jackson State University.
In the Woodson family, education was paramount. Descendant Robert H. Cooley III remarked, “it was impressed upon me through my uncles and my grandfather, my parents that…education is no question. You will be educated.” His cousin John Q. T. King credits his great-aunt Minerva Woodson with providing him with an exceptional education as a small child. Woodson was an accomplished teacher who had travelled from Ohio to Tennessee to help open Memphis’s public school system. “Talk about a head start in education, my sister and I got a head start,” General King remarked, “Aunt Minerva taught us as little kids.” He went on to teach mathematics at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, and served as its president from 1965 to 1988.