New exhibit explores Thomas Jefferson's slave ownership

Nineteenth century bilboes for a child, front, and an adult, typically found on slave ships, are displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History new exhibit: “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, at the museum in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON — As the Smithsonian continues developing a national black history museum, it’s offering a look at Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong slave ownership through an exhibit that explores the lives of six slave families at his Monticello plantation.

The exhibit, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” opens Friday at the National Museum of American History, focusing on the conflict between the ideals of human equality that Jefferson immortalized in the Declaration of Independence and the fact that he was a slaveholder. It includes a look at the family of Sally Hemings, the slave who many historians believe had an intimate relationship with the third president and was the mother of four of his children.

A groundbreaking for the National Museum of African American History and Culture is planned for Feb. 22. It’s scheduled to open in 2015 on the National Mall.

In the meantime, museum director Lonnie Bunch said his staff can test ideas by building exhibits before the full museum is finished and seeing how the public responds to difficult subjects, such as slavery, as they try to present history for the widest possible audience.

“This is a story we know we have to tell, and this is a story we know is going to be difficult and going to be challenging, but this new museum has to tell the story,” he said. “In many ways, the Smithsonian is the great legitimizer, so if we can wrestle with slavery and Jefferson, other people can.”

A portion of the exhibit devoted to the Hemings-Jefferson story marks the first time the subject has been presented on the National Mall.

Curators stopped short of making a definitive statement in the exhibit about the relationship, but they wrote that it was likely an intimate one, based on documentary and genetic evidence.

“On the one hand it’s not a breakthrough for scholars. We’ve known this for a long time,” Bunch said. “I think that the public is still trying to understand it.”

Many archaeological artifacts also will be on public view for the first time, exploring the work and family life of six slave families.

Curators explore the importance of slavery in early U.S. history and Jefferson’s views on slavery, which he called an “abominable crime.”

The small laptop portable desk he used to draft the Declaration of Independence is placed front and center in the exhibit, borrowed from the Smithsonian’s permanent exhibit on the presidency.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be the first museum added to the National Mall since 2004.

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