The history of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States of America and author of the Declaration of Independence, is infinitely more complex than what those two traits suggest. On Wednesday, Feb. 12, Gayle Jessup White and Andrew Davenport visited the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts to speak to that complicated past, one that includes the ownership of slaves that both Jessup White and Davenport are descended from.
Jessup White and Davenport gave their joint talk, “A Report from Monticello: Restoring African American Narratives to Thomas Jefferson’s Plantation” as part of the Common Ground Lecture Series and Open VISIONS Forum. The conversation was moderated by professor Philip Eliasoph, PhD, and accompanying Jessup White and Davenport on their panel was associated professor of history Shannon King, PhD.
Davenport is a current PhD student at Georgetown University, where he studies U.S. history and works as the Georgetown Slavery Archive Fellow. He is an alum of Fairfield College Preparatory School, graduating from there in 2008. He continued on to Kenyon College for his undergraduate degree, then returned back to Fairfield for his master’s degree in American Studies.
Jessup White is the current public relations and community engagement officer for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the home and surrounding plantation grounds where the past president once lived. With an undergraduate degree from Howard University and a master of science in journalism from Northwestern University, she began her career at the Washington Bureau of the New York Times before becoming a television news reporter and anchor, and later a public television producer.
What connects the both of them, however, is their familial connection to Jefferson via Sally Hemings, with Jessup White also being related to the Hubbards, another enslaved family who lived at Monticello. Jessup White heard some of this oral history as she grew up, telling The Mirror that she was introduced to that “thread of a story” when she was 13, which she pursued for the following 40 years.
This led her to the Getting Word project, an initiative begun at Monticello in 1993, “to preserve the histories of the African American families at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation,” as stated on their website. These accounts have allowed the project to tell, “the stories of people whose lives and achievements were all but erased over the last 200 years.”
“What [Getting Word] has done is it has helped families, who have been separated by sale, by deaths, by ambitions in some cases, by tragedy, be brought back together,” Jessup White said.
“We connected in 2015, that’s when we found out we were related,” Davenport added. This connection followed Jessup White’s involvement in 2014 as a fellow. “I’ve been involved [with the project] since 2016 or so. I did research on them in 2017, and did my MA thesis here at Fairfield on the Getting Word project.”
Speaking further on Getting Word, Jessup White credits the project with helping her discover the details to that initial oral story she was told when she was a child, discovering the project basically by accident.
“I sort of stumbled into it, it’s not that I planned it; I didn’t know it existed,” she said. “But…I had this curiosity about my ancestry, and how a black family from Washington, D.C. could be related to the third president of the United States.”
“I would not have known that my family was enslaved at Monticello. Andrew would not be here now were it not for that story that started so many years ago, that little thread of a story…Sometimes it feels providential.”
Davenport and Jessup White found that their stories coming together and their families being reunited has coincided with where the country is currently at when it comes to discussions of slavery and African American history.
“People now want to talk about enslavement and the consequences of enslavement, the messages of enslavement that we still live with today,” Jessup White said.
Davenport specifically made mention of the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ first essay of that series. The Mirror spoke to Hannah-Jones about that project previously this semester.
“In her opening piece for the 1619 Project, [Hannah-Jones] talks about the difficulties her dad had talking about some of these issues, and if you can imagine it was even more challenging for older generations to talk about enslavement and their experiences in a segregated military or what have you,” he said. “Now in 2020, it seems like people are more willing to discuss these things and dig deeper into American history, to come out the other side and see what’s happening now.”
While speaking more specifically about Thomas Jefferson’s history, Davenport and Jessup White discussed the continued complexity of understanding his significance in their lives. Could they view him purely as the man who enslaved their ancestors and not as the person that helped shape the early history of our nation? Or was the omission of that fact not the most effective way to view him? At the very least, they reached a decisive consensus that there is a difference between remembering and venerating a historical figure such as Jefferson.
“Veneration is uncritical worship,” Davenport said. “Remembering is [having] an eye towards telling, telling a story that is fuller…Memory is a faulty thing, but remembering is totally different from veneration. That’s what we want to get into, we want to get back to memory and how people were and consider them in context.”
Jessup White added that it is a natural human instinct to venerate the figures we admire, whether they be in our own lives or those who act as public figures.
“It might even be necessary [to venerate people], in some respects. But I also think it allows for false narratives, and that is in fact what we are combating, those false narratives,” she said.
“Jefferson has been venerated, and was venerated in his own lifetime; he was considered the sage of Monticello…It is far more valuable to see Jefferson as human, to see him with his flaws, to know that in spite of his many flaws, and they were considerable, that he still gave us the most inspiring words of humankind. And we can’t dismiss that, but we don’t have to venerate it either. Venerate the words, but not the man.”