Before white supremacists converged on Thomas Jefferson’s hometown earlier this month, Jefferson was already enmeshed in a controversy about the news that Monticello is restoring a room to include more of Sally Hemings’ story. Widely circulated pieces by journalists like Britni Danielle and Shaun King have since responded to the rhetoric of calling Hemings Jefferson’s “mistress” and American society’s clemency for Jefferson.
While focused on Monticello, these critiques broach an issue at greater scale throughout the United States. We should be talking more about the problem that nearly all historic sites that once had slavery were preserved not because they were sites of slavery, but because they were impressive homes of white slaveowners.1
Many historic sites have begun teaching about enslaved peoples through tours, special programs, and signage—but these efforts remain auxiliary to the core mission of educating about the historic home and homeowners. Monticello doesn’t even mention slavery in its mission statement. In case you’re wondering, Mount Vernon doesn’t either.
Briefly set aside any familiarity you have with historic homes and take a few moments to consider how absurd this convention really is. Here’s an exercise you might do:
// Think of a site of crimes against humanity outside the United States that you can visit as a tourist today. Could you imagine this place:
- Having been saved as a historic site for a reason besides remembering the crimes against humanity and people harmed there?
- Being marketed and most commonly known as the home or workplace of [name of oppressor]?
- Telling visitors that [name of oppressor] had a complicated relationship with the people they harmed, and visitors can opt to take a separate tour about those people while they’re there?
- Selling postcards and other souvenirs showcasing the beauty of their architecture or landscaping?
- Hosting weddings, anniversaries, baby showers, and other joyful events?
- Being mirrored by sites matching these criteria throughout its nation or region with a frequency and ubiquity comparable to historic sites in the United States that once held enslaved people?
If you’ve answered “yes” to all of these, I’d be grateful if you would comment. As it stands, I’m unaware of a phenomenon quite like this existing anyplace else. //
Being a white person, I can’t understand or speak for the stories of enslaved people. Yet, being a Jewish person, some part of the mistreatment of these sites feels personal. A Holocaust museum is meaningless if the nation it’s in denies reverence to its own sites of oppression. If all oppression is interconnected, then disrespect for one site of crimes against humanity must put the authority of all of them at stake.
Influenced by scholarship and movements led by museum workers of color, many historic homes (Monticello included) have set aims to tell their sites’ “complete” stories by integrating more information about enslaved people into their interpretations.2 These efforts are often called steps in the right direction, but I’m concerned they may be off-target in addressing the problem. The issue isn’t that these sites are failing to tell the whole story. It’s that they’re still telling the wrong story.
Maris Jones once wrote, “Our trauma is not an accessory.” Her sentiment, while expressed in a different context, makes plain why inserting stories of slavery into the existing narrative is insufficient. If Black stories can “complete” a site telling white stories, but not the other way around, then the Black stories are being used to accessorize the white stories at their own expense. Treating Black people as supporting characters for white people is counterproductive to teaching about slavery. Similarly, trauma isn’t a puzzle piece that completes the oppressor’s story. It doesn’t exist to complicate visitors’ understanding of the esteemed slave owner. Museums and historic homes shouldn’t be talking about the slave owners in the first place.
Aside from the moral question of whether these people deserve to be remembered, there’s a tactical question of whether interpreting them through their property is even a tenable mission for historic homes. It’s not always obvious to me how seeing a famous figure’s house and personal effects helps visitors understand the significance of their work and contributions to society. By comparison, interpreting the evidence the house bears to crimes against humanity and the lives of people who were enslaved there is unquestionably relevant to the place being preserved.
My most recent experience touring one of these houses happened about a year ago. The docent began with a biography of the (white) homeowner, gave a who’s-who of consecutive (white) tenants, and concluded with a tour of the house’s slave quarters. It took me some time to process how readily it was taken for granted that white people belonged in the story. If the homeowner is so unknown that a docent has to tell visitors who they were, there’s a good chance they don’t need to be mentioned at all.
Some would probably argue that visitor expectations make omitting narratives about slave owners impossible—anyone touring a house would want to know who owned it. But visitor expectations of hearing this trivia more often indicate when sites are failing to define or communicate their real significance. Many docents at natural history and art museums, for instance, don’t include details like who built the museum and what year it was built in their tour scripts. When the mission to teach about art or natural history is clear to visitors, they are more prepared to expect that a tour will focus on these subjects.
To clarify their purpose for visitors (and staff), historic homes might reexamine what 1-2 aspects of their site most make it worth saving. In doing so, I think many would find a gross discrepancy between the people they’ve been featuring and those who matter.
So what does Monticello’s mission tell us about how the site perceives its value? It’s unlikely that seeing Thomas Jefferson’s bed and tea cups teaches visitors much about the Declaration of Independence or his Presidency. This suggests the site is still telling his story out of belief that it’s important for people to know who he was as a person and, by extension, what kind of person founded America.
Herein lies the problem: there are hundreds of historic homes all exhibiting the wealth and power of the same kind of person across the country. Even if all of these sites individually have good intent, collectively they convey that only this kind of person could have had the means to make an impact worthy of national memory.
We can remember this when we ask why white visitors are drawn to seeing the wealth of these sites even when artifacts of that wealth don’t serve the educational mission the site claims. We can remember it when we ask why knowing what kinds of linens Jefferson owned is considered valuable information in the course of American history. And we can remember it when we ask why white supremacists found symbolic value in meeting at Jefferson’s hometown.
Peggy McIntosh once described an example of white privilege: “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.” If being told that people of your color built your nation is an indicator of privilege, then sites like Monticello must ask what it means to be the ones doing the telling.
1. Nearly, not all. There are some notable exceptions, such as the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.
2. It would be impossible to cite all influential scholarship and movements here, but a few examples include Black Lives Matter, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, #BlkTwitterstorians, Visitors of Color, The Incluseum, Museum Hue, and the Brown Girls Museum Blog. For more examples, see this list of publications compiled by La Tanya S. Autry.
Special thanks to Camille Bethune Brown, nikhil trivedi, and Jordan Thibodeau for their helpful input for writing this post.