Until this century, it was possible to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson's
life without significant mention of his slaves. Even when Jefferson's
slaveholding began to be widely discussed, the emphasis remained on Jefferson
himself--the contradictions in his character-- and not on the lives of the
slaves. In recent years, however, a number of historians and writers have
taken up the challenge to restore the slaves' story from whatever sources
Slave Life at Monticello · Slave Narratives · "The Peculiar Institution" · Slaves in the Family
In 1847, a writer came across Isaac Jefferson, a man who had served for many
years as one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves at Monticello. Isaac was then living
in quiet retirement in Petersburgh, Virginia. The writer took down Isaac's life
story, as well as a vivid account of domestic life at Monticello, including
perhaps the most detailed first-person description of Sally Hemings ever
recorded. But the manuscript was not published. For more than a century,
Isaac Jefferson's words lay unread. In 1951, they were rediscovered and
published under the title Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, an invaluable
insight into everday life at Jefferson's home and plantation. Only three other
accounts from Thomas Jefferson's slaves survive: Madison Hemings's and Israel
Jefferson's interviews in an Ohio newspaper in 1873, and Joseph Fossett's
interview in the New York World in 1898.
For twenty years, Captain Edmund Bacon served as chief overseer of slaves and
the working plantation at Monticello. Late in his life, as an "aged and
wealthy citizen of Kentucky," Bacon was approached by the president of a local
college who wanted to take down Bacon's recollections of life at Monticello.
The resulting manuscript was originally published in 1862, forgotten for a
time, then republished in a scholarly edition in the 1960s. In this chapter,
"Mr. Jefferson's Servants," Bacon begins: "Mr. Jefferson was always very kind
and indulgent to his servants. . . He would hardly ever allow one of them to be
whipped." Later, Bacon addresses the Sally Hemings story by saying that he
knew the identity of the father of her children -- that he had, in fact, seen
the father "come out of [Sally's] room many a morning, when I went up to
Monticello very early."
In 1776 Jefferson made a census of the 'Number of souls in my family..." These
are the first words of historian Lucia Cinder Stanton's groundbreaking work on the
lives of Jefferson's slaves. Jefferson's "family" included not only his
daughters from his marriage to Martha Jefferson, but also the 117 slaves who
then lived on his plantation whose lives Jefferson documented in his Farm
Later, the slave ranks at Monticello would swell to 140, including a number of
slaves who were more than Jefferson's figurative "family," but literally his
own children. In this essay, Stanton brings together all of the documentary
evidence available on a number of Jefferson's slaves--including the first-hand
accounts of Fossett, Bacon, and the others-- giving us one of the richest
portraits ever of slave life at Monticello.
In 1993, two Monticello historians--Lucia Cinder Stanton and Dianne
Swann-Wright--started the "Getting Word" project in order to uncover and record
the oral histories of the descendants of the African American slaves at
Monticello. By delving through public records and interviewing descendants and
their family members, Stanton and Swann-Wright, with the help of southern Ohio
historian Beverly Gray, have created an archive of stories. This collection of
oral histories, artifacts, and photographs documents slave life and life after
emancipation for these former families of Monticello.
Between 1936 and 1938, over 2300 slaves across the U.S. were interviewed by
writers and journalists on behalf of the Works Progress Administration. At
this site, created by Bruce Fort at the University of Virginia, you can read a
sampling of the interview transcripts, view photos of former slaves, and
listen to audio excerpts. Also included are a bibliography and links to
resources about slavery, the South, and African American history.
This list of slave narratives is edited by Stephen Mintz, history professor of
the University of Houston. Mintz has written extensively on slavery and social
reform and is considered an authority on the history of the American family.
He organizes these narratives chronologically and thematically, starting at
Enslavement and ending with Emancipation. The sources can be found at the
bottom of each narrative.
This site, part of "The Digital Scriptorium" project of Duke University,
provides digitized versions and transcriptions of original documents written
by African American women, including letters which offer a rare first-hand
glimpse into the lives of slaves and the relationships they had with their
This is the companion site to the six-hour PBS tv series, "Africans in
America." Located in the "Resource Bank" section is a library of dozens of
primary source documents related to slavery--such as Venture Smith's
Narrative--a rare record of a first generation African American in the colonial
era--or notices of runaway slaves in newspapers. There is also a list of
important people and events in relation to slavery
If your interests lie in contemporary views of slavery, you can find
contemporary commentators on different aspects of slavery, such as Douglas Egerton on the "Positive Good" theory of slavery.
This online version of the Library of Congress' "African American Odyssey"
exhibition includes text images related to the Atlantic slave trade and to
liberation strategies of slaves. You'll find several items related to the
Amistad rebellion, such as a drawing of Cinque, the "brave Congolese Chief," as
well as documents, maps, and more.
The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School is a site which contains digital
documents pertaining to Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and
Government. The site on slavery contains federal and state statutes, treaties
and agreements, and other related documents (such as the Emancipation
Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution).
In this first chapter from Slave Counterpoint, Philip Morgan, history
professor at the College of William and Mary, explores the similarities and
differences of two regional slave cultures of the American South in the
18th century. Morgan discusses the plantation experience -- field
work fand skilled work-- interactions between whites and blacks, and early
African American culture and society. Throughout, Morgan peppers his arguments
with primary source anecdotes, making it an enjoyable read.
Edward Ball won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1998 for his book
Slaves in the Family. Ball's ancestors controlled many rice plantations
and enslaved over 4,000 African Americans over a 170-year period. Ball writes
about the lives of these ancestors, as well as the lives of their slaves. In
this 1998 interview Ball stated that he wanted to tell the black story and the
white story "side by side." He discussed how he tracked down descendants from
his ancestors' plantations and listened to their stories, discovering some
interesting connections. In one case, a descendant of a slave told him a story
about her grandmother that matched almost identically a story written in a
diary by one of his own ancestors. In another interview with the
Atlantic Monthly, Ball talked about his family's mixed reaction to his book.
Watch QuickTime clips from the documentary "Family Name" which tells the story
of Macky Alston's search for his ancestry. As a child, Macky Alston wondered
why his last name was shared by so many of his African American classmates.
Years later, his father showed him a book which explained that the Alston
family used to be one of the largest slave-owning families in North Carolina.
In his film, Alston attempts to break through the secrecy of his family's past
and to bring together black and white Alston descendents for the first time.
The founder's of the Afrigeneas web site have set out with the ambitious goal
"to find and document the last slaveholder and the first African" in each
African-ancestored family in America. The site they have assembled over the
last ten years is perhaps the nation's largest source for African American
genealogy. The site is particularly strong on one of the most difficult
problems facing the African-American genealogist: tracking family records of
slave and pre-slave life. The site contains records of slave owners, including
data from documents such as wills, bible records, birth records, etc. The site
welcomes the contribution of individual or family information to their
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