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Thomas Jefferson and Monticello

July 27, 2012

In the spring I was visited at the Tower by Linnea Grim who is Director of Education and Visitor Programs at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home and plantation in the USA.  We had an interesting conversation about the complexities of communicating difficult subjects to the visiting public who have pre-conceived notions of certain subject matter and do not necessarily want long-cherished ideas challenged.

Linnea’s work is utterly compelling.  Thomas Jefferson was a complex character, an enlightenment thinker, writer of the Declaration of Independence, statesman, polymath, linguist, but also a slave owner who likely fathered children with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves.  At the heart of this story is a man who struggled to reconcile his beliefs with his practices and a new exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: the Paradox of Liberty, explores this very story.

This article on the Smithsonian’s own website focuses on the life of two of Jefferson’s own slaves, Edith Fossert and Fanny Hern, his cooks, two remarkable women we know very little about except through their work, who ran the most complex kitchen operation in Virginia at that time.  Until now, theirs was a history both silent and silenced and this exhibition will, at last, give them a voice, however quiet that may be.

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