Happy 4th of July!
Our nation’s history is complicated and our understanding of it incomplete. Historic preservation must have a role in how we better understand it in the future.
Monticello is a good place to look at this issue. Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence signed on this date in 1776, was its designer and most famous occupant. Sold by his heirs in 1826, it was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1923 and became one of America’s early historic house museums.
The grand homes of “Great Men” were the focus of early preservation efforts and their interpretation was exclusively concerned with those men and their families. Only in recent decades has recognition grown that these buildings are monuments to others as well – those who actually built them, maintained them, and did the labor that paid for it all, often enslaved people.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello has embraced this expanded role, expending significant resources in archeological and documentary research into the other people who resided at and worked on the plantation, including the large Black population, followed by reinterpretation of the house and grounds for visitors. This includes the history of Sally Hemmings and her family, some of whom were the bi-racial children of Thomas Jefferson and Ms. Hemmings.
In this 245th year since declaring independence from Great Britain, I hope we will make real progress on fulfilling the promise of the document Jefferson drafted in 1776, “that all men [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We will get there only by acknowledging and celebrating the contributions of all Americans.