African drumming and dancing, Southern cuisine, and a national TV crew are not what Monticello’s visitors typically encounter at Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home. But on a recent balmy August evening, the guests were anything but typical. In fact, one might argue that because their ancestors were members of Monticello’s enslaved community, they weren’t guests at all.
“It felt like coming home,” said Janice Gonzalez, one of 22 descendants who was present at the special August 12th – 13th event, a collaboration between the Slave Dwelling Project and Monticello’s Getting Word Oral History Project. For almost 25 years, Getting Word has collected and preserved the oral history of Monticello’s enslaved community’s descendants.
The Slave Dwelling Project strives to bring attention to extant slave quarters by inviting people to spend the night in buildings once occupied by slaves. Founder Joseph McGill’s goal is to help preserve slave quarters and the history they represent.
It’s the project’s sixth year in operation and its second at Monticello, where the experience is reserved for descendants of Jefferson’s slaves. “It was humbling,” said Hemings descendant Shannon LaNier, who was back for the second year.
Twice as many attended this year, although not everyone elected to spend the night. For those who did, shelter was found in the historic Cook’s Room, Kitchen, and Wine Cellar or in reconstructed workhouses and slave quarters. Six Hemings family descendants slept in the recreated home of John and Priscilla Hemmings. “I wonder if they ever felt that it belonged to them,” asked Belinda Pettiford Hilliard, who traveled with her family from Chillicothe, Ohio where many Hemingses and other freed Monticello slaves settled before and after the Civil War.
Some participants were local, others traveled from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Washington, DC. There were multiple generations - mothers with their children and grandchildren, a mother and son, a grandfather with his granddaughter. Descendants were from Monticello’s major slave families, the Gillette, Hughes, Herns, Granger and Robinson clans, as well as Hemingses.
One favorite activity was the late-night bonfire. Just as their ancestors probably had, descendants gathered around the smoldering heat, their voices mixed with laughter and a few tears. Much of the conversation was about slavery and its consequences, leading descendant Calvin Jefferson to comment later that “understanding the ‘peculiar institution’ is far more complex than we want to admit.”
An added dimension to this year’s event was the presence of NBC’s “Sunday Today” show correspondent Harry Smith and his TV crew. From a respectful distance, Smith observed the dancing, talking, singing and praying. “This is a pilgrimage,” he said while watching extended family gather on the Kitchen Yard. A story about the Slave Dwelling Project and Getting Word are scheduled to appear on an upcoming “Sunday Today” show.
While there were several memorable moments during the two days –cousins meeting for the first time, line dancing near Mulberry Row, a spontaneous rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the African American graveyard, even a meteor shower – perhaps nothing was quite as magical as the evening’s sunset.
As dusk settled over the mountaintop, all eyes turned toward the horizon. Filtered rays appeared across the darkening sky, spreading like a gold and rose-colored fan. “It’s spectacular,” said Charles Franklin after capturing the image with his cell phone camera. He added, “I don't really believe in such things, but if I did I’d say that this was our ancestors shining down their approval of our pride in our heritage."