A new exhibit called “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” opens today at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Jointly organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the exhibit explores the contradiction inherent in Jefferson’s advocacy of universal rights and his ownership of slaves. The exhibit is unique in that the temporary exhibit at NMAH is accompanied by a permanent exhibit at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation in Charlottesville, VA, that uses outdoor signage to explain the evidence of African-American life and labor found at the plantation through archaeological digs. As well as providing specific information on Jefferson’s views, the exhibit provides more general information on the context of slavery in the 18th century. One image included in the exhibit and on its website (www.slaveryatmonticello.org) is this 1796 watercolor by Benjamin Henry Latrobe:
The watercolor, which is from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, is entitled An Overseer Doing His Duty, Near Fredericksburg. It provides a stark view of the reality of 18th century life and work, and a useful reminder that as interpreters of history we need to teach our visitors about the people whose lives may not be as immediately visible but whose labor made the lavish lifestyles and grand homes of the upper-class possible.