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the slaves' story

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 survive.

Slave Life at Monticello · Slave Narratives · "The Peculiar Institution" · Slaves in the Family

Slave Life at Monticello
Accounts from Four Jefferson Slavesarrow

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.

Monticello's Slave Overseer Speaksarrow

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."
Jefferson's Familyarrow

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 Book

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.

Getting Word Oral History Projectarrow

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.

Slave Narratives
Ex-Slaves Interviewed in the 1930'sarrow

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.
Accounts from Slaves in the 18th and 19th Centuriesarrow

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.

Rare Writings from Slave Womenarrow

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 owners.

Africans in Americaarrow

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.

African American Odysseyarrow

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.
Documentary History of Slaveryarrow

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).
Slave Counterpointarrow

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.

Uncovering a Family's Slaveholding Pastarrow

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.

Family Namearrow

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.
Resources For Tracing Your Slave Ancestryarrow

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 collection.

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