I grew up in Charlottesville, Va., in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and both the house and the man cast a long one across our town. Although everyone knew the name Sally Hemings (the rumors had been around since 1802), most grown-ups said the author of the Declaration of Independence couldn’t have fathered children with one of his slaves, and it had to be his Carr nephews. On tours of Monticello, the guides only briefly mentioned “dependents,” who worked in the house and grounds of Jefferson’s Little Mountain and tours were confined to facts about Jefferson’s life and times as a Renaissance man, architect, inventor, president, rather than slaveholder and hypocrite.
Since then, however, thanks to the work of historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed, and DNA testing, we know Jefferson fathered at least six of Hemings’ children, and thanks to the good sense of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the lives of Monticello’s enslaved inhabitants are an important part of tourist visits there, including a new exhibit on Sally Hemings herself.
So in the better late than never department, Ashland, the historic home of Henry Clay, announced this week that it will be starting a tour exploring the lives of those enslaved there. In aid of that, Ashland officials need help by hearing about what Lexingtonians, presumably descendants of people who lived there, know. They’re holding a public listening session this Saturday, Aug. 24 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon at the Lyric Theatre Community Room.
“We hope to discover more stories that have been passed down through generations of families,” says Cameron Walpole, Manager of Tours & Education, “These connections will help inform our narrative, providing insight and nuance into the lives of those African Americans enslaved or employed at Ashland.”
Ashland’s executive director, Jim Clark, said that Ashland has documentation of 60 people that Henry Clay owned during his lifetime, although there were probably many more on the estate and in Washington, D.C. where Clay spent much of his life.
One of those people, Charlotte DuPuy, was one of the first people to sue for her freedom after having lived with Clay’s household in Washington and Maryland. She eventually lost that lawsuit.
Clark said Ashland curators have been working for the past three years to piece together more history from farm ledgers, household accounts and letters to and from Clay and his family members.
“We’re trying to connect families in the community who believe they have some familial connection to the estate, descendants who were enslaved or those who worked for the McDowells,” Clark said. “Our goal is to try and find resources that will help us emphasize the story about enslaved and free African-Americans on the estate. We’re encouraging people to bring artifacts and letters, but also family oral histories are equally important.”
This is happening the week after the New York Times published its blockbuster 1619 Project, which examines U.S. history through the lens of the 400th anniversary of enslaved people arriving in this country. I’ve been surprised by social media pushback on the project, as though it’s somehow un-American to write about slavery and how it shaped this country’s history. Frankly, if people are shocked or upset by learning about, for example, how racism shaped Atlanta’s highway system, it speaks to how effectively we ignored or covered it up.
Henry Clay, like Jefferson a statesman and slaveowner, casts a long shadow over Lexington, and while it’s late in the day, at least Ashland is trying to uncover an important part of its history.
Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.