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Descendants of Thomas Jefferson's Slaves Spend the Night at Monticello
Air Date: 09/18/2016
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Descendants of Thomas Jefferson's Slaves Spend the Night at Monticello


It's one of history's great contradictions how could the man who wrote the words all men are same at the dawn of the American revolution accept and rely on the labor of slaved men and women including Sally Hemings with whom he had a long term relationship and a number of children. Harry Smith visited Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home for a gathering of descendants of the slaves who helped built Jefferson’s legacy.

HARRY SMITH, reporting:

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, is a monument to his genius. Jefferson's hand is in every detail, but the hands that built this magnificent house were the hands of Jefferson's slaves.

SHANNON LANIER: It's pretty powerful to see that they have these little fingerprints in the bricks that my ancestors put these fingerprints there. And they're so small, because a lot of them were actually just kids.

SMITH: More than a hundred enslaved people worked here and in the surrounding fields for decades. Monticello wouldn't be here were it not for slaves.

WOMAN #1: I have many ancestors in Monticello including Sally Hemings’ older brother, one of her older brothers Peter Hemings, who was my great, great, great grandfather.

WOMAN #2: This is the home of my great, great, great, great grandfather.

SMITH: We were witness recently to an extraordinary family reunion. Monticello invited some of the descendants of its enslaved people to come here for a night. It was both party and pilgrimage, a journey of connection. Shannon Lanier is the author of Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family.

LANIER: You look out at this beautiful picturesque place that is Monticello and say, wow, it's beautiful here, but would my ancestors have thought it was beautiful?

SMITH: Some spent the night here sleeping on the hard floors of replicated slave quarters. There was little comfort, save knowing your own flesh and blood had been here too.

SAKEEN NAZIR: They worked children from sunrise to sunset, so that was important for me to wake up as they did. And to be here as they were forced to be here.

SMITH: Sakeen Nazir is a descendent of Moses Gillette who was enslaved at Monticello. To her this is hallowed ground. I'm thinking, right, this is the soil, this is the 

NAZIR: I have the soil at home.

SMITH: Do you?

NAZIR: Yes, I do. I have at home. I have it at home.

SMITH: Among those who stayed the night was Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. He slept in almost a hundred slave quarters in 17 states. Why should people do this? Why should people come and sleep in a building like the one that's right behind you here?

JOE MCGILL: In these environments, it forces the conversation of race relations, those things that were set forth in the founding of this nation and where we are today, it helps us fill in the blanks.

SMITH: Spots left blank, because in much of America, while all men may have been created equal, they were not treated equally. Even Jefferson, enlightened, brilliant Jefferson, couldn't live without his slaves. Naya Bates is a historian at Monticello.

NAYA BATES: Some of his earliest memories are of a slave, you know, lifting him on a pillow to a horse to go on a family trip, and one of his last memories is of an enslave person repositioning his pillow before he died. I mean there was no way that he existed without these people.

SMITH: These people, whose children's children's children’s children met face to face unimaginably free. So you spent the night. What was it like?

MAN: It was real life talking to descendants that we’re all related to and share an evening together like we haven't had in a couple of hundred years.

SMITH: And if you're the descendant of an enslaved person, a lot of times you don't know where you came from. Jefferson had meticulous records. He had records of everything. He owned more than 600 slaves in his lifetime, right? So these people know this is where their people came from. So it was very powerful emotional experience for these folks.

GEIST: And I can only imagine. You touched it on the piece, it is one of these great contradictions

SMITH: Right.

GEIST:  That the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence 


GEIST:   Who told us all men are created equal owned 600 slaves.

SMITH: Right. Washington freed his slaves. Jefferson never freed his slaves, except the descendants, the children of Sally Hemings.

GEIST: That’s right. What a beautiful piece. Harry Smith, thank you so much.

SMITH: Good morning, sir.

GEIST: Good to see you.