'Paradox of Liberty' at the Charles H. Wright explores slavery at Monticello

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Neil A. Barclay, CEO and President of the Charles H. Wright Museum, observes one of the exhibits.

"Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty," which opened Friday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, stirred local protests earlier this year by some who feared yet another page of black history was going to be wrapped around a white man. 

But this is not a repeat of "Glory," the 1989 Civil War film about a heroic African-American regiment that needed Matthew Broderick as the star to render it palatable to white audiences. 

Rather, "Paradox," which will be up through June 22, is a stirring tribute to the humanity and remarkable skill of slaves at Monticello. The show also reflects decades of painstaking research by black and white historians alike at the national historic landmark and UNESCO world heritage site to identify the individuals who formed its workforce, and trace their bloodlines to the present day. 

The exhibit  home of slave Sally Hemings at the entrance of the exhibit.

Of the controversy, the Wright's newly installed President and CEO Neil A. Barclay said, "I think the feeling was that the Wright should not do an exhibition that romanticizes slavery or exalts Jefferson." 

It's a point of view that Barclay, who just moved here from New Orleans and spoke with a number of those objecting, completely understands. 

"But I do not think that's what this exhibition does," he said. "This is a remarkable story that on balance is much more complicated and nuanced than what we’re generally told about Jefferson."

Indeed, this is almost entirely a story of Monticello's slaves, starting with the legendary Sally Hemings.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson is on display inside the exhibit.

Jefferson, apart from a statue surrounded by a poignant diorama with the names of hundreds of his slaves that towers above his head, is a minor player here. Where he does put in an appearance, he mostly comes in for criticism over his hypocrisy -- the exponent of American liberty who was nominally opposed to slavery, but profited from it his entire life. 

Sensitive to local concerns, the Wright took steps to minimize Jefferson's presence even further. At the show's previous stops, visitors would have been greeted by the statue of Jefferson. Not in Detroit. Here the first thing you'll see is a granite grave marker, dedicated to the memory of those enslaved at Monticello.

At heart, this is the story of six African-American families, whose accomplishments and genealogies are spelled out in detail: the Hemings, Fossetts, Gillettes, Grangers, Herns and Hubbards.

A panel showing Jefferson's Monticello Plantation.

We learn, for example, that Jefferson purchased George and Ursula Granger and their sons in 1773, because Ursula was a "favorite housewoman" for the aristocrat's wife, Martha, who would die in 1782. 

Ursula's husband George is described as the plantation's foreman, and later, remarkably, its overseer, while their three sons grew up to be skilled artisans. 

One of the many paradoxes the exhibition explores is why there were only two runaways during Jefferson's adult life -- a fact modern audiences may find hard to swallow. 

The key to this, said Patrina Chatman, the Wright's curator of collections and exhibitions, has everything to do with the importance of family ties. Running away, as an interactive display notes, meant you would likely never see your family again. 

And as an escaped slave in America, Barclay said, "You're on your own, in a world that’s really looking to harm you. On the other hand, if you stay," he added, "you live in a context where you’re regarded as something less than fully human."

Sally Hemings, whom Jefferson famously called to Paris and made his lover when she was just 14 -- which appalls modern audiences, but would not have been as shocking, even with white women, 350 years ago -- lived a life that epitomized these cruel choices. 

"Why didn't Sally just stay in France?" Chatman asked, noting that under French law she would have been a free woman. 

The entrance of the exhibit featuring Sally Hemings.

Yet, as "Paradox" explains, Hemings was already pregnant with her first child by Jefferson at the time the two returned to America, and even had she been white, the young woman would have faced insuperable obstacles as a single mother in the late-18th century. 

"So Sally comes home," Chatman added, "because there she’s got help and support. There were five generations of Hemings on Jefferson’s plantation. Sally's brother," who also went to Paris and became a gifted French cook, "also came back and was there. Sally had people at Monticello who could help with the new child that was coming."

Hemings, however, was no pushover, and won a promise from Jefferson that he would free the children he had by her when they turned 21, which he honored. 

African-American life at Monticello is laid out in intriguing detail. Glass display cases hold many of the products slaves created in their daily labor that have been unearthed in archaeological digs at the landmark -- including the nails from the "nailery" that Jefferson sold to make money. 

Neil A. Barclay, CEO and President of the Charles H. Wright Museum, stands next to one of the exhibits.

Another case exhibits common household objects some slaves might have owned, including patterned dishware and other staples of household life along Mulberry Row, the part of the plantation where many of the enslaved lived. 

Don't miss the two short, instructive videos in the exhibition's second gallery. Of particular interest is "Getting Word," which details efforts by Monticello historians to identify and individuate slaves, and then track down their descendants throughout the United States. 

Barclay acknowledges that "Paradox of Liberty," which was chosen long before he took the job, is not precisely the show he would have picked to launch his career in Detroit. 

All the same, he said, "I’m really proud of the work we’ve done in bringing this here, both in terms of the way it’s installed, and the public programs we've assembled to unpack the difficult questions it raises." 

Barclay added, "The best exhibitions don’t really tell you everything. They suggest, and present things in counterpart to other ideas. It’s up to the viewer to ferret out the moral dilemma, and what their opinion on it is."

'Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty' 

Through June 22

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit

9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tues. - Sat; 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. Sun. 

$8 - adults, $5 - seniors, $5 - kids 3-12; members enter free 

Upcoming programs at the Wright: 

6 p.m., March 21: "She Took Justice: 400 Years of Perseverance" - lecture and booksigning by Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, professor of constitutional law, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

6 p.m., March 26: "When Slavery Is Erased from Plantations" - lecture by Talitha LaFlouria, professor of African-American Studies at University of Virginia 

(313) 494-5800



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