When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he left a debt of $107,000, over a million dollars in today’s money. Despite his efforts, the plantation was unprofitable, and his expenses were heavy. He died believing a public lottery would raise the money to keep his daughter, her family, and the enslaved workers at Monticello.
Beginning six months later, his executors were forced to sell the land, house, household contents, and 130 men, women, and children. Families who had served the Jeffersons for nearly 60 years stood on the auction block on a cold January day in 1827.
Only seven people were spared: the five whom Jefferson freed in his will―Burwell Colbert, Joseph Fossett, John Hemmings, Madison Hemings, and Eston Hemings―and two whose informal emancipation he had recommended―Sally Hemings and Wormley Hughes.
In 1993, Monticello historians began an oral history project called Getting Word. By interviewing the descendants of Monticello’s enslaved families, they hoped to catch the words of ancestors—getting word back about who they were, where they lived, what dreams they had for their children.