Abby, Abram, Aggy and Amy. Susan, Tucker and William.

These are just seven of the names of the 607 enslaved people that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, owned.

“Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello,” a new traveling exhibit at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, opens with a powerful statement.

Mary Lauderdale, visitor services manager for the museum, said she likes to start the exhibit at Room 607: a room bearing the names of the 607 men, women and children that Jefferson owned throughout his lifetime.

A statue of founding father Thomas Jefferson is placed before the wall, staring at the names.

“I stand here and think, ‘Wow,’” Lauderdale said. “I feel like the way that he’s placed: he’s conflicted. And that’s what this exhibition is about."

Monticello, Jefferson's beautiful home just outside of Charlottesville, has been called a neoclassical masterpiece in the Palladian style.

"Jefferson was extremely accomplished, but his life wouldn’t have been what it was, the Declaration of Independence wouldn't have been what it was, without the enslaved people who made his life possible," said Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer. "For years, the very names of the people he enslaved were lost, buried, ignored or marginalized."

"That’s the paradox of it. Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal. But he owned scores of people. It’s very contradictory," Jessup added.

The traveling exhibit, which was created by Monticello for the Smithsonian, has been touring since 2012 and been seen by over a million and a half people. And now it’s finally in Richmond.

The exhibit tells the stories of six enslaved families who helped build and maintain Monticello, including an illuminating portrait of Sally Hemings.

At age 14, she traveled to London and eventually to Paris where Jefferson, age 44 at the time, was serving as the United States Minister to France. There was no slavery in France and Hemings could have stayed on as a free woman.

But after two years, Jefferson convinced her to return to Monticello with the promise of “extraordinary privileges” and that he would free her unborn children.

According to the exhibit, she returned to Virginia where, shortly afterwards, she gave birth to her first child.

In 1998, a DNA study was released that suggested Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings' children, recognizing a controversy that had raged for more than two centuries.

In 2000, after a longstanding history of avoiding the mention of Sally Hemings' name, Monticello released the findings of their investigation that found Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemings. Four of those children survived into adulthood.

In the exhibit at Richmond’s Black History Museum, a short video tells the life story of Sally Hemings, as told by her son, Madison. Although there are no photos of Sally Hemings, the exhibit creates a vivid picture of her with a replica dress that she could have worn, as well as several of her belongings.

As promised, her four surviving children were freed. But they were only a few who escaped slavery at Monticello.

The exhibit also explores the lives of the Gillette family, the Granger family, the Herns and the Hubbards. Some were skilled woodworkers or made nails, while others cooked meals for Jefferson in the house. Their stories – their hopes and wishes, their marriages and children – are told in the exhibit.

More than 300 artifacts are included in the exhibit, including everyday tools like a toothbrush, a comb, toys or marbles.

The items "humanize these people...It's about those people and their families. Not Jefferson, but the people who worked and were enslaved by him," White said.

White herself is a direct descendant of Jefferson and is related to the Hemingses and the Hubbards. Her great-great grandmother was the daughter of Peter Hemings, an older brother of Sally Hemings.

When Jefferson died in 1826, he was deeply in debt. His executors were forced to sell the land, the house, and the 130 men, women and children he owned as slaves.

Only seven were spared, including two of Sally Hemings’ children.

Sally Hemings was never officially freed by Thomas Jefferson. She was permitted to leave by his daughter not long after Jefferson’s death in 1826.

ccurran@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6151

Twitter: @collcurran

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