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Peter Fossett's "Eventful Life"

The life of one man, born into slavery at Monticello, illustrates many of the themes that we have encountered over and over in interviews and in public records. Peter Fossett has become for us a symbol of what was hidden in the shadows of slavery; he stands for the rest of his fellows in bondage about whom less is known. From his story we learn of the passing on of skills from generation to generation, the transmission of family history, the yearning for freedom and justice and the struggle to achieve them, the hunger for education, and the central importance of family and church.

Peter Fossett, born in 1815, was the son of Joseph and Edith Fossett, Monticello's head blacksmith and head cook. When he recalled his childhood at the age of eighty-three, Peter Fossett was conscious of the privileged atmosphere of his first ten years. He had "little to do," he said. He spent his days near his parents on the mountaintop opening gates, fetching Jefferson's saddle horse from the stable, or sometimes taking lessons in reading from Jefferson's grandson. He wore clothing that distinguished him from the boys of the farm quarters, for his grandmother, Mary Hemings, who had gained her freedom in the 1790s and was a woman of property in the nearby town of Charlottesville, gave him suits of blue nankeen cloth with a red leather hat and shoes.

This life came to an abrupt end in January 1827. "I knew nothing of the horrors of slavery till our good master died, on July 4, 1826," Fossett related at the end of his life. "Born and reared as free, not knowing that I was a slave, then suddenly, at the death of Jefferson, put upon an auction block and sold to strangers. I then commenced an eventful life." While Joseph Fossett had been given his freedom in Jefferson's will, his wife and seven of their children were led to the auction block and sold. The eleven-year-old Peter was bought by a local merchant and farmer, John R. Jones. Joseph Fossett pursued his trade in an unremitting effort to reunite his family. He negotiated an agreement with Colonel Jones to purchase Peter as soon as he accumulated sufficient funds and to allow him in the meantime to teach his son the blacksmith's art. He also bargained with Jones's sons to continue Peter's education.

These efforts ended in broken promises. Jones refused to sell Peter and threatened him with a whipping if he ever caught him with a book. In his mid-twenties, Peter Fossett had to watch his family prepare to leave Virginia for Ohio. Joseph Fossett had been able to purchase the freedom of his wife and some of his children. By 1843, they had settled in Cincinnati, but made periodic visits back to Virginia to see their children still in bondage and to try to secure their freedom. As Peter Fossett remembered, "My parents were in Ohio and I wanted to be with them and be free, so I resolved to get free or die in the attempt." He twice ran away from Jones and twice was recaptured. After the second attempt, Jones sent Fossett to the auction block. A combination of family efforts and resources, with some help from local white citizens, made possible the purchase of Peter Fossett's freedom and his journey to join his family in Cincinnati.

In his twenty-three years in bondage after Jefferson's death, Peter Fossett had continued to pursue his education, in secret, and he passed his knowledge on to others on the Jones plantation. One fellow slave told of learning his own letters from Fossett by the light of pine knots in a remote cabin. Fossett himself recalled, "All the time 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 lived in a household of fervent Baptists. Mrs. Jones provided hospitality to itinerant preachers and attended their camp meetings. Peter Fossett listened and also attended the revivals, at one of which he was converted.

Peter Fossett came to Cincinnati as a free man in 1850. He first found work as a whitewasher, working in addition as a waiter in private homes and for a catering firm. In the 1870s he purchased "a wonderful collection of china, linen and silver, much of which could not be duplicated in America," and formed, with his brother William, his own catering establishment. While his mother had died just a few years after his arrival in Cincinnati, she no doubt passed on to her sons some of the favorite French recipes from Monticello. Described as "the most prominent of the early caterers," the Fossett firm was widely known and Peter Fossett himself was recalled as an "indispensable major domo at wedding feasts and entertainments."

Fossett continued his activities on behalf of education and his fellow men. He served on the board of directors of the segregated school board, belonged to the National Prison Reform Congress and the University Extension Society, and was an active aide to Levi Coffin in the Underground Railroad. In 1862, he was a captain in Cincinnati's Black Brigade, helping, in front of the lines, to build roads and fortifications on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. In 1854 he had married Sarah Mayrant Walker, originally from South Carolina, who was a highly skilled hairdresser. Sarah Fossett also was remembered for her work with the Underground Railroad and was active on behalf of local orphanages.

Peter and Sarah Fossett's most lasting legacy was their religious work. After serving as clerk and trustee of Union Baptist Church, he was ordained a minister in 1870. Energetic in Baptist organizational work, he organized his own church in a Cincinnati suburb in the same year. Eight years later First Baptist Church, Cumminsville, was constructed, largely funded by Peter and Sarah Fossett. While the original building no longer stands, the congregation flourishes nearby, their founder's photograph prominently displayed in the vestibule of the new church. Rev. Peter Fossett led his Baptist flock for over thirty years and was decribed by one author as "the greatest exemplar, expounder and disciplinarian of that doctrine in this state."

In 1900, the members of Reverend Fossett's church helped him satisfy a long-held wish to return to the scenes of his childhood. He traveled to Virginia and was driven up Monticello mountain by the son of a man he had taught to read. The individual who had left Monticello from an auction block over seventy years earlier entered the house by the front door and was welcomed by the current occupants, Jefferson Monroe Levy and his sister, "with most gracious hospitality." The changes wrought by the years saddened him, but Reverend Fossett happily recalled a boyhood passed in an "earthly paradise" of grounds and scenery and animated by streams of famous or foreign visitors. He "could see Mr. Jefferson, stately and gray-haired," he told the newspaper reporter, who said Reverend Fossett was fond of quoting the author of the Declaration of Independence "by the hour."

"Upon his return," according to a Cincinnati newspaper, Reverend Fossett "frequently insisted that he now awaited the approach of death with extreme satisfaction, having seen all of this life's pleasures that heart might hope for." Peter Fossett died six months later, mourned by his congregation and his community. More than 1,500 people, both black and white, attended his funeral.

Lucia Stanton, 1998

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