Gathering the Community at Monticello

by Prinny Anderson

Sitting under the porch while my parents attended an annual meeting of the Monticello Association (MA) in the late fifties, it occurred to me that my Monticello Randolph relatives–all descendants of Thomas Jefferson–must include many, many African Americans. I saw lots of black people around me in Virginia and Washington, D.C., and I knew that the old plantation families, like my grandmother’s, had owned plenty of slaves. The idea that there would also be a family connection was a flash of innocent genius–no one in the family would ever have talked about that possibility! I wondered what would happen if I could find those people and bring them to a meeting. My ten-year-old imagination was highly entertained by picturing the likely consternation. Then it was time for lunch, and imagination was replaced by fried chicken and potato salad.

When Fawn Brodie’s biography of Jefferson was published in 1974, maybe two decades after that MA meeting, I remember dinner conversations at my grandparents’ early nineteenth-century townhouse in Washington, during which my family scoffed at the idea that he might have had a relationship with an African American enslaved person. But as the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first, the MA considered extending membership to the descendants of Sally Hemings, which meant acknowledging their relationship to Jefferson. My mother, in her eighties by then, announced that she certainly was not related to “those people,” the Hemings, but she was horrified at the angry, disrespectful behavior of her white relatives. I decided to get involved, to learn what was going on and to look for a moderating point of view at the final decision-making meeting. What I found was hateful, manipulative politicking that was intimidating and closed to dialogue. The membership proposal was voted down; my reaction was that I was not “related to” those people who voted against inclusion–my real family had to be somewhere else.

I was shocked at the anger and underlying fear expressed by the outspoken white Jefferson descendants. I do not understand how someone could feel personally threatened today by an ancestor’s deeds one hundred and fifty or more years ago, especially since slavery was widespread in the U.S. and it was commonplace then for slave owners to have children with women they enslaved. My shock has evolved to sadness and wariness as I watched some of my European American family publish papers, write books, send letters to editors and speak at gatherings, denouncing the descendants of Sally Hemings and anyone who associated with them as frauds, impostors, or ignorant fools and asserting conclusions that are unsupported by many historians, genealogy experts and most of the American public. I have also experienced the manipulative disrespect and abuse directly. The MA refused to allow people attending the Monticello Community Gathering to enter the Monticello cemetery on the grounds that they might damage the grass and the plantings. But a gathering of Virginia Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members is invited to visit every July.

The only hopeful aspect of the MA’s membership dispute was that one cousin prepared a proposal for a new organization with a larger scope, one to include descendants of everyone who lived at Monticello in Jefferson’s time, linking people through home and heritage, skirting the troublesome kinship connection. There was no support in the MA but it reignited my long-lost fantasy of bringing together the black and white Monticello descendants.

Inspiration for the Community

In 2003, the descendants of Sally Hemings were welcomed at Monticello for a family reunion. I attended as one of only twelve relatives from the Martha and Thomas Jefferson lineages there. On the last night, my Randolph cousins John, David and Susan and I sat over the remains of our Red Lobster dinner and drafted a statement of regret for our ancestors’ role in slavery. Susan delivered it at the Sunday worship service. Immediately following, Debbie, Linda, Marla, Susan, David, John, and I invited everyone to visit the Monticello cemetery, previously barred to them by the MA. We stood under the old oaks on a warm June morning, in an enormous circle, holding hands, sharing prayers, hymns and invocations to our linked ancestors. Even The New York Times photographer was in tears.

The following year, I attended the Woodson Family reunion (a group that predominantly identifies with being African American), getting to know more of the Monticello Family and reinforcing my sense that these are people I want to be related to, people I am privileged to be in the midst of, people with strong values, a clear sense of heritage and identity, powerful commitments to education, accomplishment, service and acceptance. I was deeply touched by one man’s request to take my picture. He said he wanted it to show the rest of his family and friends. “No one else ever has members of the owner’s family come to their reunions,” he said with a grin.

Before I attended this reunion I needed to do a few things. First I needed to educate myself about the people of Monticello and the history of slavery and of African Americans in the U.S. I needed to have a factual, fully rounded base of knowledge and I needed to strengthen my sensitivity to and my fluency with the reality of coming from an enormous, historically important, interracial slave-owning family. For an entire year, all of my reading was about slavery, plantation history and African American history, and that reading material continues to make up about half of what’s on my bedside table and travels in my briefcase.

Next, I needed to get better at noticing when I think, speak and act out of my heritage of white privilege and fail to “see” other perspectives – when someone else’s hair type is not “normal” on the shampoo bottle or when “skin tone” lingerie is ivory colored. I have to grieve my own loss of innocence and find a way to acknowledge and live with my ancestors’ role in kidnapping, enslavement, genocide, atrocity, torture, and dehumanization of others and of themselves. I needed to keep my eyes and my heart open to the damage that centuries of slavery oppression have done to all Americans, the oppressed and the oppressors. Luckily, in my Monticello Family and the Coming to the Table community, there are people to dialogue with, people with whom it is safe to ask questions and explore new thinking.

In the midst of this self-evolution and as a result of both the MA’s decisions and my experiences at Hemings Family events, the idea of a reunion of the whole “Monticello Family” went from being “cool” to being imperative. The imperative was shared with a handful of cousins from several Monticello Family lines, all convinced that we needed to take a stand about personal views of our heritage and make a different public statement in contrast to the racist, exclusionary or indifferent positions of others in our family. We had already delivered an apology to the Hemings Family, we had already opened the gates of the Monticello cemetery and we had already laid flowers and prayed at the only spot at Monticello where enslaved people are known to have been buried. It was time to do something bigger, in the spirit of inclusion and love.

We formed a Planning Committee for the “Monticello Family Gathering,” and held monthly conference calls with a wider group of cousins new to the reunion idea. The term “family” raised unexpected obstacles. Not only had European American Jefferson descendants not wanted to acknowledge a connection with African American Jefferson descendants, there were disagreements among the African American family members as to who was “in” the family and who was “out.”

Daunted but not defeated, Planning Committee members went to the 2005 Hemings family reunion to ask for guidance. A new name for the event came to me there: The Monticello Community Gathering (TMCG). “Community” seemed welcoming and inclusive to a range of members. Matriarchs of the Hemings clan blessed the name and the idea of a community gathering

For TMCG, the invitations went to everyone we could find who was descended from someone who had lived and worked at Monticello, or visited for extended periods, or who had an ongoing connection to the plantation and its community, e.g., historians, writers and staff of the foundation that owns Monticello. We worried about verbal attacks from conservative family members and Charlottesville citizens or attempts by the press to stir up controversy, so we were prepared a press kit that stated how we favored inclusion over exclusion, and how we preferred to make the “error of yes” rather than the “error of no”.

The Gathering

On the weekend of July 13, 2007, two hundred and fifty people came to Charlottesville, Virginia for TMCG. They included descendants of workers, enslaved and free, contract artisans, tutors, who were apart of Jefferson’s family, his siblings’ families and children of his public and private families with Martha Wayles and Sally Hemings. Approximately eighty percent of community members identify as African American, and the remainder are of European heritage. Together we made or renewed acquaintances, feasted at garden parties, took tours and history walks, listened to family stories and scholars’ talks, studied photos, maps and documents lent by community members for the weekend, played with children and grandchildren and ended the gathering worshiping and breaking bread together.

The first full day of the Gathering opened with what I thought would be twenty minutes of short introductions by someone from each segment of the community. As I walked around the meeting room with a microphone, inviting people to talk, I met Fred, a descendant of Jefferson’s Italian gardener, who had never been invited to a Monticello reunion before. I coaxed Zach, a tall, handsome, shy fifteen-year-old, to keep his promise to his mother to speak for his line. I welcomed the Carr family, descendants of Jefferson’s sister who married his best friend, a family line never openly acknowledged by the MA. I knelt to hold the mic so that petite Mary could tell the story of how she learned of her connection to Jefferson from the little book passed down by her father. I stood with everyone else as we applauded Mary’s story and the courage to sustain the family history in the face of disbelief that had been experienced by so many in the room. We sat down after more than an hour of introductions.

The mayor of Charlottesville went to the podium and told us that, normally, he has a set speech of welcome he gives on such occasions. But having heard the stories of our Community, he was abandoning his notes to give us a genuine welcome, and asked we forgive any hesitancy as he spoke. Our keynote speaker talked about the great variety and complexity of relationships among black and white people during the period of slavery in Virginia. I was struck how his forthrightness made it acceptable to speak aloud the visible truth–it was slavery which had brought many of our ancestors together at Monticello.

During that day, there were tours of the plantation, with Williamsburg re-enactors demonstrating typical activities. We listened to descriptions of how our foremothers would have cooked and carried food to the owner’s dining room, how our forefathers would have forged nails, where our ancestors would have slept, kept kitchen gardens and caught fish. On Saturday night, there was a reception on the lawn at Monticello. “Welcome. Welcome home,” rang out to all of us from the mansion’s front steps. Parents and children wandered all through the house, exclaiming about the beauty and the curiosities. A giddy spirit overtook us as we waited for the photographer to line up his group shot–all of us, the whole Community, standing on the mansion’s steps, arm in arm, singing “We are family…” My heart filled up as I watched children throwing Frisbees and chasing each other across the lawn, people chatting about genealogy, baseball, gardening or travel and young people bringing refreshments to their elders seated under a great tent.

On Sunday morning we held a worship service on a hillside overlooking a sun-drenched green meadow. Honoring the faith traditions of Jefferson’s day, the service was led by an Episcopalian minister and a Christian preacher–they called themselves the African and the Anglican. Through different moments of that service–the remembrance of those who had died, making a wreath of flowers for our ancestors, being preached up one side and down the other, listening to a recounting of the Middle Passage–I felt, to the core of my being, the words of the song we sang several times–”Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound.” Grace was with us and in us, in the smiles, hugs, and warmth of our connections.

After the Gathering, a Community member sent me a link to his blog. Along with the photos he’d posted, he had written about the moment, walking the Monticello grounds with his wife, of recognizing that, yes, he is the descendant of enslaved people who built Monticello and sustained the owner’s family, yes, that is a dark part of the story, and yes, he is the descendant of a man with a great creative mind that designed the mansion and wrote the Declaration of Independence–all of what that is converges in and uplifts him.

In the final dialogue, the circle of Monticello Community members articulated that we have challenged ourselves to be a model for America and the world, a model of how a group of people linked by heritage and family ties, divided by slavery and its legacy of racism and mistrust, can call upon grace, hope and love to live a new story for tomorrow, a story of “com-unity.”

about the author

Prinny Anderson wants to help herself and other European Americans actively contribute to healing the legacy of slavery, racism and white privilege. She is the several-great-niece of an enslaved woman and several-great-granddaughter of the man who owned her. Anderson’s journey so far has included holding a historic gathering of all the descendants of her ancestors’ plantation community, participating in the activities of Coming to the Table and reading, reflecting and dialoguing. She is a coach, educator and consultant. A significant amount of her work is with micro-finance institutions in the developing world.

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