Against almost insurmountable odds, African Americans living at Monticello strove to learn their letters&—from friends and relatives or from Jefferson's grandchildren. There is evidence that a number of the enslaved artisans could read and a few, like cabinetmaker John Hemmings, could write as well. Peter Fossett and others like him secretly taught their fellow slaves to read and write in their continued bondage after Jefferson's death, often 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.
"I consider what education I have as a legitimate fruit of freedom." -- Israel Gillette Jefferson, 1873
A fragment of a writing slate found in archaeological excavations and over a dozen surviving letters attest to the efforts made by Monticello's African Americans to gain an education. John Hemmings wrote to Jefferson about his work on the house at Poplar Forest in Bedford County. His great-nephew Peter Fossett learned his letters from one of Jefferson's grandsons. Sold at the age of eleven after Jefferson's death, Fossett was forbidden to continue his studies by his new owner, who threatened to whip him. Nevertheless,he secretly pursued his education and taught others what he knew, as well as successfully forging passes that allowed friends and relativesto reach freedom in the north.
"Peter Fossett taught my father to read and write by lightwood knots in the late hours of night when everyone was supposed to be asleep. They would steal away to a deserted cabin, over the hill from the big house, out of sight." -- Charles Bullock, 1948
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 of David and Isabel Hern's descendants have been teachers, including Martha Hearns Boston. When she was still in elementary school in rural Albemarle County, 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 practice teachers, she got her master's in social work, had a distinguished career in Pittsburgh, and received many community service awards.
"I have found out what Education is and intend to strive hard to get it and hope I will succeed." -- Robert Scott, 1866
JEFFERSON AND SLAVE EDUCATION
Three former Monticello slaves provide almost the only testimony on the mysterious subject of Jefferson's role in the education of his own slaves. Peter Fossett, born at Monticello in 1815, recalled that Jefferson "allowed his grandson to teach any of his slaves who desired to learn." Madison Hemings remembered that he "learned to read by inducing the white children to teach me the letters." Israel Gillette Jefferson, born in 1800, overheard Jefferson tell the Marquis de Lafayette that slaves should be taught to read but not to write, as they might then forge free papers. In the case of Peter Fossett, he was certainly right. Sold to another Albemarle County plantation owner after Jefferson's death, Fossett was forbidden to continue his education but pursued his studies secretly. In the 1830s, by which time legal restrictions on teaching slaves to read and write had grown more severe, he passed his knowledge on to his fellow slaves by night, in a remote cabin lit by a burning pine knot. He also forged a number of passes that gave his sister and others their chance for freedom. Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson also continued to improve their education after they achieved their freedom.
Read about Jefferson's 1796 letter to Robert Pleasants, which sheds some light on his views on the education of slaves more generally.