Monticello

Historical Significance

Located on a small mountain outside Charlottesville, Virginia, Monticello was the home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia. Jefferson's house, which he designed himself, is a fine example of Roman neoclassicism completed in its present form in 1809. It is the only historic house in the country on the United Nations (UNESCO) World Heritage List. Monticello is owned and operated by a private non-profit foundation, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

Jefferson's house was the centerpiece of a 5,000-acre working plantation, with as many as 140 enslaved men, women, and children living and working on it. They cultivated the crops, cared for the livestock, drove the carts and wagons, and built and maintained the fences, farm buildings, and machinery. On Mulberry Row, the plantation road just south of the main house, tradesmen and women carried out their skilled tasks in woodworking, metalworking, and textile shops. In the house, men and boys worked as butlers, waiters, and footmen, and women prepared meals and cared for Jefferson's children and grandchildren.

Most of Jefferson's slaves, as well as his land, came to him through inheritance: about 30 from his father and 135 from his father-in-law, John Wayles. Despite his belief that the institution of slavery was an "abominable crime," he was a lifelong slaveholder, considering himself the owner of over six hundred individuals over the course of his lifetime. He freed only seven men in his life and in his will, all members of the Hemings family. Elizabeth Hemings and her children came to Monticello in the mid-1770s as part of the Wayles estate. Over eighty of her descendants spent at least part of their lives in bondage at Monticello, including her daughter Sally. Jefferson —as most historians now believe— was the father of Sally Hemings's known children. Other important enslaved families at Monticello included the Herns, the Gillettes, and the Grangers. Since 1993, as part of Monticello's Getting Word oral history project, over 150 descendants of these enslaved families have been interviewed. Descendants since Jefferson's time include emigrants to Liberia, agents of the Underground Railroad, founders of churches, Union soldiers, and leaders in the struggle for freedom and equality. 

Physical Description

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation owns about 2,100 of the original 5,000-acre Monticello plantation. The visitor can take guided tours of the main house, the ornamental and vegetable gardens, and Mulberry Row, where free and enslaved people lived and worked. This 1,000-foot road was once lined with shops and dwellings. Remains of three structures are visible: a workmen's dwelling, a stable, and the ruins of the joinery (woodworking shop). Plans for a more interactive interpretation of Mulberry Row, its people, and its operations are under way.

Often viewed as extensions of the main house, the two L–shaped, terraced wings contained further living and support spaces where some of the essential domestic work of the plantation was carried out. The "Crossroads" exhibition in the cellar-level passage features the roles of enslaved domestic servants in the running of the household.

The Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center, opened in 2009, has a film and several exhibitions which explore the construction of the house, the people of the plantation, and the issues of freedom and slavery. Archaeological investigations over the last several decades have unearthed thousands of artifacts, some of which are now on display in the various exhibits. Archaeology also confirmed that a burial ground a short walk from the Visitor Center was used by enslaved people of Jefferson's time. Throughout the year there are special tours and programs that focus on aspects of life in slavery for Monticello's African American community. 

Geographical and Contact Information

931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway (GPS), Rt. 20, off I - 64
Charlottesville, Virginia
22902
Phone: 434-984-9800/800-243-0743

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Monticello,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed November 24, 2017, http://www.aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/276.

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