African-American families lived at Jefferson's Monticello for more than half a century. Thomas Jefferson's death in 1826 snapped the cords that connected them. His enormous debt compelled his executors to sell almost all of his property: land and livestock, books and furnishings, and the enslaved people that constituted the most valuable part of his estate, other than land. The dispersal of what had been a relatively stable and interrelated community began in January 1827, when 130 men, women, and children mounted the auction block.
For most of them, until Emancipation arrived at the end of the Civil War, departure from the mountaintop simply meant enslavement somewhere else. Even the fortunate handful who had been freed in Jefferson's will faced many of the same ordeals that marked enslavement. The priority for all of them was to find ways to knit back together the broken ties of family.
Most of those bequeathed freedom chose to migrate to the north, especially Ohio, where they had greater opportunities and a head start in pursuing them. Regardless of when people left Monticello or whether they were free or still enslaved, their new locations greatly influenced the course and character of their lives. Some chose to continue to identify themselves as black while others chose whiteness. Once part of a single community on a Virginia mountaintop, by the Civil War they lived all over the country, in Alabama and Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. In the years after the war, descendants of Monticello's enslaved community lived from coast to coast and participated in the progress of the nation, pursuing careers in agriculture, business, civil service, education, politics, publishing, and as clergymen.
People and Place will help you learn how society and the law shaped the lives of residents in various locations. Under Keeping Families Together you can read about the efforts and sacrifices made by enslaved and formerly-enslaved people to unite and preserve families. The Family Histories section offers a window into the lives of some of those families through photographs and stories provided by their descendants.