Putting Enslaved Families’ Stories Back in the Monticello

Monticello's main house and South Wing

By Andrew M. Davenport | Smithsonian

Two-and-a-half months had passed since Velma Williams’ 96th birthday on July 4, 2016, but never one to let her age get to her, she wanted to celebrate the occasion by driving cross-country from her home in Oakland, California, to Charlottesville, Virginia. Along the way, she’d stay at her cousin Nancy Ann’s apartment in New York City and then head south to her cousin Ruth’s in Richmond, Virginia.

Together, the three cousins would present themselves at the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville to be interviewed by researchers from Getting Word, an oral history archive for descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved community. Ruth had told Velma something of the project, but Velma, whose primary research interest has always been military history, didn’t think much on it.

Though unknown to Velma, Getting Word has fundamentally altered interpretation of African-American life during enslavement under Thomas Jefferson and in freedom in the country Jefferson wrote into existence. The research that has come out of the 25 years of Getting Word’s existence has in many ways been the invisible hand behind the visitor experience at Monticello, the famed plantation owned by Jefferson, where about 400 enslaved laborers worked at one point in their lives.

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