The Lives of Enslaved People at Monticello: An Interview With Niya Bates

We spoke with Niya Bates, the Public Historian of Slavery and African American Life at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, about the Foundation's Mountaintop Project, a $35 million "effort to restore Monticello as Jefferson knew it, and to tell the stories of the people—enslaved and free—who lived and worked on the 5,000-acre plantation".

You can hear our conversation with Niya Bates in Episode #1226 or read the transcript below.


Clay: Niya Bates, thanks for talking with us. Tell us a little about this $35 million initiative at Monticello.

Bates: With this project, we're bringing back the landscape that Jefferson knew when he lived here at Monticello. But we're also making sure that we've put in place the landscape that enslaved people at Monticello would have lived and worked and experienced.

Clay: Just as in 1802, the name Sally Hemings has a way of sucking the oxygen out of the room. A lot of the headlines about this great Mountaintop Project have been about Sally Hemings. Tell us about the place of Sally Hemings in this unfolding story of the enslaved people at Monticello.

Bates: Monticello is one of the best-documented plantations in the United States. Because Jefferson left such clear records in his plantation book, in his farm book & his memorandum book, we've been able to trace the lives of the enslaved people. We know a lot; we know a good deal about these people, and Sally Hemings is one of the most famous enslaved people in the country. We know a lot about her, but we don't know what she looks like, and the best we can do is restore the space that's associated with her life. We know from an account from one of Jefferson's grandchildren that she was living in the South Wing of the house briefly. So the space that we're recreating is not a space that she would have lived in for her entire life but is one that she inhabited for a brief amount of time.

Clay: When I first went to Monticello back in the early 1980s, her name wasn't even mentioned and if a guest brought it up, there was a fairly icy response from the docents. It's a whole different world today.

Bates: It is. In 1997, Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists performed a DNA test on Jefferson's descendants and descendants of Sally's son Eston Hemings, and they found a genetic link. With the DNA results of that test, and also with the research we've been doing here — the archaeology, the farm book, all of the things that are going on here at Monticello — we've been able to determine that Jefferson most likely fathered all six of Sally Hemings' children. Now, that's become a major part of what we interpret here. It's a required part of every tour.

Clay: It's a required part?

Bates: Required.

Clay: And why is that?

Bates: You can't understand Jefferson without understanding slavery; you can't understand the paradox of his life and the words that he wrote in the Declaration of Independence without understanding this historical connection with Sally Hemings and with the enslaved people in general at Monticello. In his life, he owned 607 people. So it's very important that we tell this part of the story.

David: You've been involved in this type of work for a long time. I think people want to know: What have you found? What have you discovered?

You can’t understand Jefferson without understanding slavery.

Bates: We've discovered so many different things. The archaeology has revealed imported pottery, things related to the work life of enslaved people like nails and nail rods and all these materials that were used in the industrial work that was going on here at Monticello. We're able to know what enslaved people would have possessed and what they would have purchased for themselves, perhaps, for their house. But we also know that they're selling things to Jefferson and his family, that they're growing things in private gardens. We have this wealth of information about the way enslaved people lived, how they interacted with their families, and that's because we have so many records but also because we have such a rich oral history project. In 1993, three historians — two of whom worked at Monticello, one who was working in Cincinnati — and we know that a lot of the descendants of the enslaved community here at Monticello settled in Ohio. A lot of them went to Roth County because Ohio was a free state. Historians here, using the documents that we have — using Thomas Jefferson's records — they were able to track down these families. They logged something like 40,000 miles seeking out these descendants. Now that we've interviewed over 200 people, and that we have this rich oral history collection, we're able to use that to interpret the entire arch of African American history in relation to Monticello.

David: In the years to come, what will people be able to see? I know there have been some spectacular photographs published of the work that's going on now.

Bates: We've already two cabin buildings on Mulberry Row. We have the Hemings cabin and we have the storehouse for iron, which would have been a space where young boys were working at Monticello. So they're able to see those spaces and see the material closeness — they're able to see the dimensions of the building, the conditions that the enslaved people would have lived in, some of the materials that might have been in the house, some of the things that people may have owned. They'll also be able to see Sally Hemings' room when that's completed; that's going to be early next year. They'll also be able to see a physical Getting Word oral history project exhibit where we tell the stories of the descendants of the enslaved community at Monticello.

Clay: That sounds fabulous. In 1941, Sally Hemings' room was turned into a restroom at Monticello. Was that done as an act of erasure or was that just a coincidence?

Bates: I wouldn't say it was an act of erasure at all. At the time, a lot people weren't studying what I would call vernacular architectural history. People were not studying the spaces associated with enslaved people, they weren't studying smaller outbuildings, and that part of the house was essentially a collection of outbuildings. That was a decision that would have been in line with the academic thinking of that time. But now we interpret that history and we believe it's an important part of what we do at Monticello.

Clay: Because of the great work at Monticello, which has pioneered much of this sort of research — the oral history project, the leadership of Dan Jordan and so on — the Mountaintop has turned from a defensive location into a proactive one. It's so encouraging to read now that it is literally impossible to understand the life & achievement of Jefferson without factoring in slavery at almost every possible juncture. It must give you, as a scholar, a tremendous sense of satisfaction to see Monticello taking the lead in this way.

Bates: It definitely does, it definitely does. There are people who have been working on this for decades and it's great that the work that we've been doing is now getting the attention that it deserves.

Clay: As you know, Niya, there are people now who have come to terms with the problem of Jefferson & slavery and they find it hard to take him seriously anymore. There are people who want to remove his name from schools, to remove his statue from institutions, who condemn him and say, 'I can't take seriously even so great a man as Jefferson, given his deep complicity in slavery.' How do you respond to that?

Bates: We know that Jefferson is this paradoxical person. In writing, he's writing against slavery and writing for gradual emancipation, writing about the American Colonization Society — but we know that in his private life, he's a slave owner for his entire life. His earliest memory would have been of an enslaved person raising him on a horse for a family trip. And his last would have been of Burwell Colbert, his manservant, adjusting his pillow shortly before he died. I think that's a really American story, especially when you think of Jefferson's role as a Founding Father and as the author of the Declaration of Independence. In some ways, we're the best place for people to come grapple with these ideas, these things that are at the core of our American identity.

Clay: But do you feel, at any level, that Jefferson's place in American life has been permanently downsized because of our greater candor now about this issue?

His earliest memory would have been of an enslaved person raising him on a horse for a family trip. And his last would have been of Burwell Colbert, his manservant, adjusting his pillow shortly before he died.

Bates: Oh, no, not at all. Not at all. I think, even — especially now — is a time to study Jefferson and the way that he grappled with slavery and with race.

Clay: That's just excellent. Tell us the immediate plans; next year, the Sally Hemings room will be probably available for public viewing?

Bates: Right. We're thinking early 2018.

Clay: And what else?

Bates: At that time we should be completing the Mountaintop Project. That means that the Sally Hemings room will be available to the public, the Getting Word exhibit will be public; we also have a dairy storage area that will be interpreted also in the South Wing, and Monticello's First Kitchen which is associated with James Hemings. He was a cook here at Monticello but he was trained in French cookery while Jefferson was in Paris.

Clay: You talked about the paradox of Thomas Jefferson — "all men are created equal", his gradualism approach to the emancipation of slaves, the colonization, his own racism & pseudo-scientific racism as revealed in Notes on Virginia — do you regard him as confused or a hypocrite? Or what?

Bates: No, I regard him as someone who couldn't divorce himself from slavery. He inherited that from his father's generation. As a man of the Enlightenment, he believed that his generation would do so much and the next generation would eventually solve the problem. And I see him as someone who grappled with these ideas. For him, he saw no solution to that. They couldn't be freed here in America but there was a great cost associated with colonization. He was never able to solve that problem. It would take us almost 60 years after his death before we had the Civil War to resolve the issue of slavery.

Clay: But how often do you find yourself just shaking your head about this man?

Bates: [Laughing] I find myself shaking my head about a lot of things. Not just Jefferson.

Clay: That's a tremendous answer to that question.

David: Niya, in closing — Annette Gordon-Reed wrote that the story of Monticello at its core is "about the complicated nature of America's founding" and at the Jefferson Hour, I guess that's what we like to talk about: the complicated nature of America's founding. Do you think that's a fair assessment of Monticello?

Bates: I think that's a wonderful assessment.

Clay: Thanks for your time today, we'll talk with you again soon.

Bates: Alright, thank you.


Niya Bates is a native of Charlottesville, Virginia and a two-time graduate of the University of Virginia with an M.A. in Architectural History and B.A. in African American and African Studies. Her research interests include historic preservation, vernacular cultural landscapes, cultural heritage, slavery and race. Niya was formerly a contract architectural historian at James Madison’s Montpelier and is now Public Historian of Slavery and African American Life at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, where she works closely with the Getting Word African American oral history project. She is currently serving on the board of Preservation Piedmont and is a member of the Landscape Studies Advisory Group for the UVA Landscapes Studies Initiative. She has an upcoming article titled “Race and Architectural History: An Appeal” in 2017 edition of Arris: Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.


More From the Thomas Jefferson Hour