You are here

Fighting for Freedom and Equality

In the early years of the twentieth century, two descendants of Monticello's African-American community waged crusades against racial injustice at opposite ends of the country. Madison and Mary Hemings's grandson Frederick Madison Roberts raised a voice for equal rights in his Los Angeles newspaper, the New Age, while Joseph and Edith Fossett's great-grandson William Monroe Trotter vigorously fought lynching, discrimination, and segregation in the columns of his paper, the Boston Guardian.  W.E.B. DuBois credited Trotter with "putting the backbone" into the platform of the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the NAACP.  In 1915, both Roberts and Trotter protested against the screening of "Birth of a Nation," a film that inflamed racial prejudice and glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

"We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults." -- Niagara Movement "Declaration of Principles," drafted by William Monroe Trotter and W.E.B. Du Bois in 1905

"He didn't like the word ˜Negro.' He used the term ˜Americans of African descent.' He wanted to stress the fact that we were Americans and should be treated as Americans, whereas most newspapers would say, ˜another Negro lynched,' his newspaper would say, ˜another American lynched.'" -- Pearl Hinds Roberts, speaking about her late husband, Frederick Madison Roberts 

Those who came before Roberts and Trotter were just as active in efforts to make the nation live up to its founding document, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. They began with the pursuit of liberty. James Hubbard ran away from Monticello for the second time in 1811 and managed to live for over a year as a free man until he was recaptured. Three of Joseph and Edith Fossett's children tried to run away from their new owners after Jefferson's death.

William Monroe TrotterMany resisted the oppression of slavery through clandestine activity. Peter Fossett remembered his own secret movements, made at a time when education of both slaves and free blacks was severely restricted.  "I was teaching all the people around me to read and write, and even venturing to write free passes and sending slaves away from their masters," he recalled.

In 1850, his sister Ann-Elizabeth's husband, Tucker Isaacs, was arrested for forging a free pass for her brother Peter Fossett.  Although found not guilty, Isaacs and his wife moved soon after to southern Ohio, where they continued to fight against slavery. Their farm is still remembered as a station on the Underground Railroad.


For the Civil War experiences of some of the descendants, see Continuing the Battle: The Civil War. The importance of education for Monticello's enslaved people and their descendants is discussed in Education: The Power of the Mind. Religion as the cornerstone of the lives of so many of Monticello's families is treated in Religion: The Vitality of the Spirit.

Available in Our Online Shop


Login or register to participate in our online community.