By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The National Constitution Center opens a new exhibit Wednesday that tells the story of the six families of enslaved people owned by Thomas Jefferson.
Titled, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello,” the exhibit features more than 280 objects that tell the story of the Gillettes, Herns, Fossetts, Grangers, Hubbards and Hemings families — all owned by the nation’s third president, as well as their descendants.
“Jefferson’s livelihood depended on slavery and so did the livelihoods of 12 of the first 18 presidents,” says Susan Stein, exhibit curator and vice president of museum programs at Monticello in Virginia. She says the show takes on America’s complicated history of slavery by talking about the skill, craftsmanship and critical presence of the enslaved people who built the life of Thomas Jefferson.
“They made his life possible,” says Stein. “They built furniture, they helped build the house, they planted and cultivated the cash crops, they wove cloth, they cooked meals.”
Stein says Jefferson owned more than 600 enslaved people in his lifetime and roughly 130 of them lived at Monticello in Virginia during the year. She says Jefferson kept copious records of everything he did at Monticello, which makes the plantation the most well-documented in American history. The records and objects excavated from Monticello, along with interviews of nearly 200 descendants of the six families tell a unique story of slavery.
“Understanding slavery is very, very important to us,” says Stein, “and this exhibit is important because you get to look at slavery through the eyes of enslaved people.”
“It’s putting flesh on the bones of the ancestors,” says Bill Webb, 72. He discovered several years ago that he is a fourth generation descendant of the enslaved Elizabeth Hemings, who was the mother of Sally Hemings — an enslaved would of mixed race who is believed to have had a relationship with Jefferson.
“It’s…well…in a way it’s mind blowing,” says Webb, who notes he is the third grandson of Brown Colbert, who had been owned by Jefferson from his birth in 1785. Colbert asked to be sold in 1806 and traveled to Liberia for freedom where he died.
“We didn’t find out any connection to Monticello until 2006,” says Webb. “It’s mind blowing. It gives me such a strong, strong, moving feeling.”
The exhibit runs through October. Click here for more information: