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Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty is a groundbreaking 6,000-square-foot exhibition organized by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. More than one million people visited this thought-provoking exhibition while on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History between January and October 2012.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. In an age inspired by the Declaration of Independence, slavery was pervasive. Twenty-one percent of the American population was enslaved in 1790. By exploring Jefferson’s ideas and slavery at his plantation, the exhibition examines one of the most difficult topics in American history. It explores how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world, and at Monticello, is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime. It provides a glimpse into the lives of six slave families living at Monticello.
Through a variety of museum objects, works of art, documents and artifacts found through archaeological excavations at Monticello, visitors will see enslaved people as individuals with names, family connections, values and achievements. Visitors will also see examples of deep marital and family connections, religious faith, efforts to gain literacy and education, and tenacity in the pursuit of freedom. The family stories are brought to the present via Monticello’s Getting Word oral history project, which interviewed 170 descendants of those who lived in slavery on Jefferson’s plantation.
This exhibition features over 280 objects from Monticello’s collection as well as artifacts from archaeological excavations at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation—the best documented, best preserved, and best studied plantation in North America. Objects on display include Jefferson’s personal items such as a chess set, books, spectacles, and replica of the portable desk used to draft the Declaration of Independence; the headstone of Priscilla Hemmings; ceramics; cooking and kitchen utensils; and personal items of enslaved families such as jewelry, clothing, buttons and buckles, tools, and combs and toothbrushes made with bone handles.
(PLEASE NOTE: Exhibition dates are subject to change. Confirm dates prior to your museum visit.)