Sara in Colonial Virginia

A first-year student majoring in English and public relations, Sara is a Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program. During spring 2014, she is enrolled in the Honors history class “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” The class traveled to Virginia during spring break, with visits to Alexandria, Colonial Williamsburg, Washington, Charlottesville and the plantations of George Washington (Mount Vernon), Thomas Jefferson (Monticello), and James Madison (Montpelier).

Many of the photos on this blog were taken by Lucy, a first-year Dedman Scholar and member of the University Honors Program who is majoring in biology.

Read more from Sara in Colonial Virginia

Contrasts between liberty and slavery at Monticello

The next morning started bright and early as we left for our tour of Monticello. I was especially excited for this tour. After all, we had read three (enormous) books about the Master of the Mountain and the contrast between his ideas on liberty and slavery. Going to Monticello would be a journey into the heart of the issue. A dive into Jefferson’s own mind. I will say, though, that before the trip, I had forgotten everything else that Jefferson did in his lifetime. I was so caught up in his hypocrisy! I didn’t know it at the time, but Monticello would serve as a reminder of what an incredible man Jefferson was.

On the mountain we watched a short introductory movie before a shuttle arrived to take us to the mansion. We were one of the first tours of the day, and our group had a special back-stage pass that would enable us to go up to the second and third floors. As a result, we had our own personal tour guide, unlike the emotionless shuffle-through at Mount Vernon.  Jefferson’s home had so many nooks and crannies and gadgets that I couldn’t hardly keep track of them!

I’ll try to list a few as best as I can:

  • The clockander: When Jefferson built Monticello II, he included a clock in the front entryway that was clearly meant to impress. Not only did it tell time, it also used a weight system to inform viewers of the day of the week!
  • Automatic Doors: In the formal parlor, the doors were automatic, in that if you pulled one closed, the other would follow. How fancy!
  • Dining Room: Jefferson’s dining room was so bright and open. He had several open rooms with many windows, and the walls were painted a blinding gold-yellow color. In the corners, he had dumb waiters, in which he could fit a bottle of wine, close the door, open it again, and have a new one to share with guests. A similar turning cabinet sat around the corner, used for meals. The irony behind the magic was the multitude of slaves that made everything work, replacing food and wine as Jefferson needed.
  • The Grave: Obviously not inside the house, but the grave was certainly noteworthy. In true Jeffersonian style, it was certainly large and impressive. What was shocking was the list of accomplishments he asked to have included: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Religious Freedom, and founder of University of Virginia. Nothing else. I wasn’t sure if that was a pretense of modesty or not, but for that to be his final footprint on the world … well, that says a lot about what he cared for the most.
In the Dome Room at Monticello

In the Dome Room at Monticello

Before we left the mountain, Ms. Spaniolo and Hope had asked a guide to point us in the direction of the slave burial site. I was rather miffed (to say the least) that we had to even ask — I thought Americans had accepted slavery and were committed to honoring the sacrifice of the thousands of black slaves who died in this terrible institution. Regardless, we tramped through the parking lot to a clump of trees we had seen. Here, my annoyance rose to frustration. They made the parking lot go around this area?! Did it not occur to the Foundation that by doing this, they were diminishing the importance of the slave graveyard?

The site itself was quite unimpressive, which made its impact all the more powerful. The family who had owned Monticello after Jefferson’s death didn’t pay much attention to it, and it obviously wasn’t an enormous deal before that. The trees and stones contrasted sharply with Jefferson’s elaborate obelisk, and it struck me how little the slaves mattered to their owners. Even a pet dog would be buried with more dignity.

We returned from the Mountain with just a few hours to spare before we caught dinner and the movie Twelve Years a Slave. I think we were all fairly exhausted — the traveling was finally catching up with us — so the rest was quite welcome. I was determined to take advantage of the free time to write in my journal (I was quite stubbornly insisting that I wasn’t tired). I ventured down to the lobby with the intention of writing, but I never quite achieved my goal. The wind and walking at Monticello, coupled with the week of travel, finally caught up with me. I decided I could afford five minutes to close my eyes…yeah, right. Forty minutes later, I awoke to see that it was time for dinner! At least I wasn’t the only one who fell asleep.

Dinner was relaxing (another burger joint), and before we knew it, we were in a local downtown theater, the lights fading in preparation for the movie. From the beginning, we were struck silent. I completely understand why the movie received so many awards. The cinematography was striking, and the acting was phenomenal. The plotline itself covered every aspect of slavery that our class had touched upon: white women’s roles as slave owners, kind versus cruel owners, kidnapping, rape, physical violence, the contradiction of religion, economics, forging papers, abolitionists, separation of families, and politics. There were several scenes that many of us just couldn’t watch — the whipping scenes especially. I was absolutely appalled — more so because I knew exactly how accurate the movie was.

After the movie we gathered in the lobby, still quiet. There wasn’t much to say, really. What can you do when you have just watched the stories you’ve read about become reality? It’s one thing to read about slavery, but it’s quite another to have it played out, to real people and real faces, before your very eyes. And to think that these people went through that, just based on the color of their skin. Even on film, Solomon’s blood was the same shade as the white man’s. They had families, friends, and things that they loved, and yet their “owners” treated them worse than the horses they rode. My classmates had similar reactions. We were sickened, although watching the movie at the peak of our trip was just what we needed. That didn’t change the fact that we declared a desperate need for cheerful conversation before bed. We trooped out of the theater’s lobby and back to the hotel, where we played cards and goofed off before going to sleep.

Share this story:

    About Cherri Gann

    EA-PubAffairs(News&Info)
    This entry was posted in Sara in Colonial Virginia. Bookmark the permalink.