To listen to Episode 4, click here to visit the show page.
This article supplements the History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Academy.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: Welcome to the fourth episode of the History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy. My name is Rebecca Onion, and I’m Slate’s history writer.
Jamelle Bouie: And my name’s Jamelle Bouie. I am a Slate staff writer.
Onion: In each episode of this series, we’re looking at a different chapter in the history of slavery in America, and starting the conversation with the life of a single person. This episode, we’re talking about Joseph Fossett.
* * *
In 1773, Thomas Jefferson inherited ownership of Elizabeth Hemings. Eventually, more than 75 of Elizabeth’s descendants lived at least part of their lives enslaved at Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. One of these was Joseph Fossett, Elizabeth Hemings’ grandson, who was born in 1780.
It’s believed that Joseph’s father was William Fossett, one of Jefferson’s white employees. When Joseph was about 9 or 10 years old, Jefferson sold his mother, Mary Hemings, to a Charlottesville, Viriginia, merchant, but he wasn’t willing to let Joseph go along with her. As it turned out, this wasn’t the last time that Jefferson’s sale of slaves would separate Fossett from his family.
By the time he was 14, Joseph Fossett was one of the more efficient boys working in Jefferson’s experimental nail-making factory. He then trained in smithing, ultimately rising to become the plantation’s blacksmith. An overseer described him as “a very fine workman” who “could do anything it was necessary to do with steel or iron.” Fossett was allowed to keep some of the money he earned at this job.
He married Edith Hern in 1802; soon after, she was sent to Washington, D.C., to learn how to cook in the French style in Jefferson’s White House. In 1806, Fossett traveled to Washington to see his wife without permission. Jefferson objected, considering Joseph a fugitive and chastising him for the action. Joseph and Edith Fossett’s separation was to last until 1809, when Jefferson’s D.C. household rejoined the Monticello contingent in Virginia.
When Jefferson died in 1826, he freed only five enslaved people, including Fossett. But most of Monticello’s slaves were sold to settle Jefferson’s considerable debts. This is how Joseph Fossett’s wife and 10 children came to be sold at public auction along with Jefferson’s furniture and farm equipment.
Joseph Fossett set up a blacksmith shop in Charlottesville. It would take him more than 10 years to earn the money he needed to buy back his wife, five children, and four grandchildren. The group moved to Ohio together in 1840.
Joseph Fossett died in Cincinnati in 1858.
* * *
Onion: In Episode 4, we’re talking about the lives of enslaved families on plantations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We’re going to use one famous plantation as a case study, Monticello, the Virginia estate owned by Thomas Jefferson. And then, later in the episode, we’ll take a closer look at how slavery tore families apart and the emotional history of that trauma. But first, let’s talk a little more about the life of Joseph Fossett.
Bouie: Hello, Rebecca.
Onion: Hey, Jamelle.
So in a conversation about the people who were enslaved at Monticello, Joseph Fossett’s probably not a name that most people are familiar with. I think it’s probably safe to say that most people are familiar with Sally Hemings, who had a long-term relationship with Thomas Jefferson and bore several of his children. It’s probably helpful to know that Sally was Joseph’s aunt.
The relationship between Sally Hemings and Jefferson has been much discussed, especially in the 1990s. Annette Gordon-Reed, who we’ll be speaking with later in this episode, has done a lot of work unpacking the specifics of their relationship.
But what about you, Jamelle? What’s your knowledge of other members of the Hemings family? Had you heard of Joseph Fossett before?
Bouie: I had heard of Joseph Fossett once before, and that was years ago when I was a student at the University of Virginia, and I had gone to Monticello for a tour. And the tour guide kind of casually mentioned Joseph Fossett. Honestly, I was probably flirting with someone and wasn’t really paying attention.
That is the only time I’ve ever heard the name, other than now.
Onion: What was that like to go to Monticello as a student?
Bouie: For UVA students, it’s one of the things that you do. Sometime during your four years at the school, you go to Monticello and you see the grounds.
And depending on your disposition and the people you’re with, it can either be, “Look at how pretty everything is.” It’s very beautiful at Monticello and the surrounding area.
Or if you have a different mindset, you might be more interested in the experience of enslaved people, the incongruency between the beauty of Monticello and the fact that this was a plantation. It varied. I would say that for your typical student at the University of Virginia, it’s much more of the “Monticello is a very beautiful place.”
Onion: Yeah. Because there’s a lot of Jefferson pride there.
Bouie: Right. Jefferson’s like our patron saint.
Onion: Right. You know, you write about politics. So there’s obviously a lot of discussion of Founding Fathers—pointing to Founding Fathers as examples for things, or arguing over what they believed.
Bouie: In the last couple years, I think, and I have totally done this, so I’m not going to separate myself from it, I think bringing out the fact that many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, referencing that has been an attempt to push back on the weird hyperdeification of the Founding Fathers that you saw around the Tea Party movement. To say that these were not saints. They were men. They were men of many different opinions, and morality, and moral standards.
Onion: When I was doing a little research for this episode, I was checking out these lists of which Founding Fathers owned slaves or which didn’t. For lack of a better word, there’s different ways that they were slave owners. You know, there were people who owned one person and were really conflicted about it. And then, there were people who owned tons and weren’t conflicted about it at all.
And I always am interested in thinking about whether that range means anything to us today. Or whether it’s just, you know, you owned a slave, you owned a slave—and that’s it.
Bouie: I think that range means something, if just to contextualize how different slavery was for different kinds of people in the period.
That our image of slave owners having these massive plantations—that’s a minority experience, among slaveholders. I mean, even Jefferson. He had forty slaves, which was a lot, but not the massive plantation that I think is in popular memory.
I will say though, and this goes back to visiting Monticello, this time not as a student, but with my parents. I remember on a tour, and someone in the audience asking about the Hemingses.
And this may have been three or four years ago. And the tour guide was extremely awkward about it. Kind of hesitated, and it was like, “Well, you know, the historical evidence is mixed.” And so on, so forth.
Onion: Yeah. I think there’s a really fraught relationship there—Monticello, as a site of public history, and it’s relationship with the Hemings question. And I think in recent years, they’ve become much more forthright about it.
But I think in the past it was a really awkward situation. Yeah.
Onion: I think pretty much everyone now agrees that the evidence is clear. I believe that’s something that a combination of DNA and the sort of like careful historical work of people like Annette Gordon-Reed has done for the Hemings-Jefferson question. One of the major things she does to try to prove the relationship between the Hemingses and Jefferson in her first book is to point to things like, you know, all of Sally Hemings’ children were conceived when Jefferson was at Monticello. Sort of like, line up the evidence like that.
And that combined with the fact that the DNA is clear, kind of puts paid to the other theories on the topic. So, then it becomes a question of, “how are you going to talk about it?”
Bouie: And we talked to Professor Gordon-Reed, who published her first book on Monticello and the Hemingses back in 1997.
I was really excited about this interview. And I’m really excited to have all of you listen to it. But before we get to it, we have to take a little break.
* * *
Onion: So, we’re talking about the way that enslaved families were able to be families in slavery. And we’re doing that by talking about a pretty unusual family, the Hemingses of Monticello.
Bouie: And to approach that family and learn more about them, we’re talking to Professor Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard Law School and Harvard University.
Annette Gordon-Reed: I decided to write about the Hemings family as a whole because I thought it’s an interesting story.
You have the capacity to do that, because Jefferson was an inveterate record keeper. And because the Hemings family was close to him for a number of reasons, they are in one place for five decades. So you don’t have a story of family disruption to the same extent that you would in other enslaved families.
And I also think that Sally Hemings doesn’t make sense—well, I’d put it this way— makes much more sense in the context of her family, in the context of a web of relationships that Jefferson had, not just with her, but with her mother, and her brothers, and her nieces, and nephews. It’s a group of people; it’s a group story.
So, that’s why, to illuminate Tom and Sally, but also to tell the story of these people who led interesting lives and were sort of emblematic of slavery in one way, but not in other ways.
Bouie: How are they not emblematic?
Gordon-Reed: Well, not stereotypically emblematic in that most of them, because of their connection to Jefferson, were not fearing that they were going to be sold anyplace.
They were, in the main, mixed-race people.
They were written about, at least some members of their family were written about in newspapers during their time. Sally Hemings, her brother Robert, were referred in newspapers. They existed in a public consciousness that would not have been the case with most enslaved people.
Onion: You talk a lot sort of about Jefferson’s relationship to them, and their sort of status at Monticello. What was their status there, or how was that status marked?
Gordon-Reed: Well, status—
Onion: Well, maybe that’s a fraught word.
Gordon-Reed: Yeah, it’s a very fraught word. Because of their connection to Jefferson through his wife, and Elizabeth Hemings and her relationship to John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, they were people who were given the benefits of, whatever benefits could be in slavery—not benefits—the women were exempted from field work, for example, whereas everybody else had to go to the fields at harvest time.
Members of the Hemings family, the first generation of Hemingses—the males hired themselves out and kept their money, which was actually against the law. Lots of times, Jefferson did not know where they were. They were sort of wandering around Virginia hiring themselves out as, you know, traveling valets, and tour guides, and various things. So, they had a different kind of life than other enslaved people at Monticello.
And then, a number of the members of the family become artisans—John Hemings, Joe Fossett—the objects of special training. Now there were other people on the plantation who did as well, but no other family that had so many— “opportunities” is too strong a word—nobody had as many privileges, Jefferson would’ve called them, than other people at Monticello.
Bouie: You know, Rebecca, I was genuinely surprised when Dr. Gordon-Reed said in the interview that members of the Hemings family just didn’t get special treatment at Monticello. But they were kind of allowed to do their own thing in the nearby area. Like, she said hiring themselves out as valets and tour guides.
That isn’t just different relative to the enslaved people of Monticello. That’s different relative to enslaved people period.
Onion: We spoke in the last episode about the changing laws around both enslaved people and free black people. And you know, around this time, there was a little bit of a clampdown on the freedom and mobility of enslaved people in Virginia. That Jefferson was willing to sort of defy that, or go against it, for some of the people on his plantation, was interesting to me.
Bouie: Yes. And it’s especially interesting, given the extent to which Jefferson had a bit of a preoccupation with control in so many areas of his life. She writes in her book about Jefferson’s kind of OCD-ish mind.
Gordon-Reed: I think I referred to him as being controlling about the nail factory where Joe and his cousins and other young boys—and these were actual boys—were working. You know, he counted the nails—but that’s because he liked the counting, you know. I mean, he counted the peas in a bushel of peas to see how many were there. He liked to do that kind of thing.
There are two periods of time, when he’s doing the nail factory and when he’s in retirement in the 1790s, he decides, “I’m going to be a great farmer, so I’m going to pay attention to every single thing.” And so he goes through this phase where he does that, and then he kind of goes back to the politics and drops all of that.
So he was controlling in bursts.
But, overall, he delegated to his overseers. He, you know, paid attention to what they’re doing.
He was a person who wanted order in his life. But I wouldn’t say that, among plantation managers, he was obsessively controlling.
Onion: You write about him as, rather than a punisher, kind of more of a manipulator, a manipulator of emotions. How do you see that in the record?
Gordon-Reed: He says that that’s what he wants to do.
He pays people what he calls “gratuities”—what we call, you know, wages, but he would call them gratuities—to try to incite the stimulus of character, is the phrase he used.
His overseers did resort to the whip. You know, he left operations to them.
But his self-image was of someone who preferred incentive to actual punishments, because he thought that that would make people more likely to work harder and do things, if you give them incentives, rather than punishing them.
But that doesn’t mean that there was never any punishment that went on at Monticello, because that’s just not true.
Onion: So the words “patriarchy” or “paternalism,” these words relating to fatherhood or, like, a fatherly leadership that I hear bandied about when discussing slaveholders’ attitudes, or sort of an ideology associated with slaveholding. Is that something that Jefferson participates in? Does he see himself as the father?
Gordon-Reed: So he thought of himself as a patriarch.
Paternalism is a bit different. The thinking is that that’s a philosophy that comes into play much more during the antebellum period, when people shift over from “slavery is a necessary evil,” which is Jefferson’s generation, to, really, his grandchildren’s generation’s view that slavery was a positive good, and, therefore an African race was, they would say, designed for slavery.
With paternalism, people turn around and say, “Oh, we’re all just one big happy family here. Just, you know, living and loving on the plantation. We take care of them as a father would take care of their children, and they are happy in their station.”
A patriarch is sort of halfway there, in between that.
A patriarch feels that he would have a duty; he has the right to rule. And he would have a benevolent rule. But there’s no thought in Jefferson’s mind, or the 18th century people’s minds, that slavery was a natural order. He thought that enlightenment values would eventually lead to the end of slavery.
Paternalists of the antebellum period say, “This is going to go on forever and ever, and ain’t it grand?”
The patriarchs are different than, say, 17th century Virginia people who really understand that this is—Jefferson’s father’s generation, and the way Jefferson started out—that this is a captive nation of people, and they want to kill us. And Jefferson pretty much believed that. He accepted John Locke’s formulation of slavery as a state of war between master and slaves.
Jefferson’s way of dealing with that was to suggest that, well, the best that we can do now is to be as “good” to enslaved people as we can be, until that moment when this is over.
Bouie: Rebecca, the patriarchal stuff was new to me.
I had never sort of heard those terms used in reference to slaveholders. And specifically, I hadn’t heard them in reference to Jefferson. And I know that it’s something of interest to you.
Onion: Well, it just really helped me understand. The way she sort of formulated a generational evolution in thinking among people who thought about slavery and slaveholding a lot really shed light on it for me.
I think maybe because there was so much paternalism in 19th-century slavery—and again, this goes back to our chronology problem that we’ve been talking about all through this series, which is that the 19th century becomes the image of American slavery, absent careful thinking about it.
But I feel like I’ve thought about paternalism as sort of a dominant ideology of slaveholding. But this sort of reformulation of it really helped me.
It made me think about the way the ideology had evolved.
Bouie: That makes sense. What’s interesting is that Jefferson had this sort of patriarchal, kind of proto-paternalist ideology, I’ll call it, while at the same time, he was pretty forthright about his views on the moral status of Africans relative to Europeans.
When I was at UVA, I took a couple classes on American political thought. And my first engagement with Jefferson as a slave owner, and not just as revolutionary thinker, was I guess a famous passage from his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, when he describes Africans.
Onion: Yeah. I read that as well in my graduate classes. And I think it’s often excerpted for good reason, so we will post a link to some of the excerpts in our show notes.
But do you want to read a little bit of it?
Bouie: I think I’ll read his first two points in this description, which will communicate exactly how the rest of it goes.
So, Jefferson says,
The first difference [between whites and blacks] which strikes us is that of color. ... The difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the orangutan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?
So, in that passage, Jefferson kind of just goes right out and says that, you know, blacks are less attractive than whites.
That blacks are so dark-skinned that you can’t even really see what their emotions are. And that we know that blacks are less attractive than whites, because blacks themselves, according to Jefferson, have a preference for the beauty of whites. And he compares it to the preference a primate may have for the beauty of African women.
Which you can see the logic, that whites are sort of a higher form of life, followed by blacks, followed by primates.
Onion: As our second guest in this episode talks about, there’s a way that enslaved people figured out how to cover their emotions up.
Because they were enslaved and they didn’t want to provoke somebody or get into a confrontation with somebody. There was a sort of careful art of maintaining an immovable veil for greater safety. Which is not a result of being more beautiful or less beautiful but a result of their social position.
And Jefferson seems blind to that. You know?
Bouie: He seems blind to it, as well, in the very next passage.
They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection …
Bouie: Like you said, Jefferson seems to be incapable of seeing that certain behaviors may relate to the fact that these people are enslaved. And not because they are sort of naturally, they have naturally less forethought, or they don’t want to sleep.
Onion: And in many cases, the only time that people had to themselves was after work. Why wouldn’t you want to have that time to yourself? You know, I would sit up to midnight, too, if that was my situation.
But that relativistic point of view on it is not something that he seems to be able to participate in.
Bouie: And I’ll note that in these descriptions, you can kind of see the stereotypes about black Americans that to some degree persist to the present.
Right? That black Americans have less impulse control. That they are more sensual or physical. These ideas about the qualities of black people because of their blackness. These exist in the 18th century.
Onion: For sure.
One of the most interesting things about our interview with Dr. Gordon-Reed was the sort of little bits of meta-conversation we had with her about her approach to talking about the Hemings’ situation. Because there’s a certain way in which talking about the way that they lived, and in talking about Sarah or Sally’s relationship with Jefferson, there was sort a danger that she faces. Which is that she is a little bit talking about degrees of slavery. That’s my shorthand phrase, not necessarily her phrase.
But there was this way that, in some ways, she’s talking about people who “didn’t have it that bad.” Which is a way that present-day racist apologist would love to talk about slavery. Like, to say some people didn’t have it … like, for some people, it was OK.
Bouie: Right. That some masters were good. Not all masters.
Onion: Yeah. #Notallmasters.
An actual hashtag I’ve seen.
Bouie: I mean, this is—we’re making a joke, but it’s a joke based on real life.
There is a great Twitter account called AfricanAmericanHistoryFail, or @afamhistfail. The account is a woman who gives plantation tours. And she will often tell stories about talking about slave owners being abusive or sort of just the nastiness of being enslaved.
And occasionally, a tourist will say something like, “Well, not all masters could have been like that.”
Onion: And someone like Annette Gordon-Reed has to face this problem all the time.
Gordon-Reed: We’re talking about it in a political atmosphere, in an atmosphere where people are still fighting the Civil War and what slavery meant. You hesitate to use words that I know people out there will latch on and say, “See? You know, slavery wasn’t all bad,” even though that’s ridiculous.
But people are always looking for a way to ameliorate the situation, to make it look as though it was not a horror show, and it was not oppression.
So, yeah, I do pause over those words, but, by the same token, if you want to describe individual people’s lives, you have to come to grips with the fact that some people went through that in a different way.
And not any of them, judging by, you know, Joe Fossett’s behavior after he is freed, attempting to purchase his family, nobody thought that slavery was the ideal condition. They all wanted out of it, no matter how “privileged” they were. The Hemingses wanted out of slavery, as anybody would.
Bouie: In our interview with Dr. Gordon-Reed, we talked a lot about the Hemingses in a general sense and not so much about the specific relationships of different Hemingses to Monticello and to Thomas Jefferson in particular.
And one of those relationships, the most famous one, or infamous one, is Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. Which is hard to approach in any way other than, you know, looking at this as a case, and an all-too-typical case, of rape and sexual assault.
Onion: Yeah. And this is one of the things that is, I think, really hard for historians to talk about. Maybe for everybody to talk about. Which is that rape was prevalent in slavery.
In our interview, she brought up the famous case of a woman named Celia, who was enslaved at age 14. And at age 19, in 1855, after five years of being raped by her owner, she killed him and was put on trial.
And she compares between a case like that and what happened with Sally Hemings. Which is sort of obscure and difficult for us to understand, in part because when Sally Hemings and Jefferson first got together—when we think they first got together, because there’s no actual evidence besides her pregnancy—she was actually in France with him, and she could have stayed in France and become free, based on the laws in France at the time or the prevailing attitude toward slavery in France at the time. You know, we don’t know why she decided to come back.
And that’s one of the things that Dr. Gordon-Reed does so well, is to try to talk about women’s relationship to their own bodies in slavery, on an individual basis.
Gordon-Reed: When you’re speaking generally, I have no problem saying that 99.9 percent of people—you know, we’re talking about rape. You can use the same standard that people use with respect to statutory rape, and say, if you can’t say no to sex, then it’s worth treating any sex that takes place as a form of rape, when people have that level of power over other people.
I understand that. But once I decided to write the story of individual people, I have to think about the interior lives of the individuals about whom I’m writing. And if I have, as I mention in the book, someone like Celia, who kills her master after years of sexual abuse. You know, he buys her and then, on the way home, rapes her. It’s clear he’s bought her, this teenage girl, for sexual purposes. He can’t even wait to get home.
And then you have Sally Hemings’ situation that’s more ambiguous, because it starts when she’s in a place where she has an opportunity to take freedom, but when she comes back, she’s totally in Jefferson’s control.
So I have difficulty assuming that all of these women thought about their lives in the same way because they were owned by the men with whom they had children.
I think that there has to be a way to make those comparisons, to ask the reader to think about the possibility that, in some situations, people were doing things that they thought were advantageous to them. In much the same way that women might make an advantageous marriage. They’re thinking about it in different ways.
And then you have somebody like Sally Hemings, whose father was white, and whose grandfathers were white. Why would we assume that she would think that the only suitable person for her would be a black man? Just because people today may have a sense of racial solidarity that looks back at this and says, ‘All those people are your enemies.’ But why would she think that?
And if a white man was an acceptable partner, why wouldn’t Jefferson, as white men went, why wouldn’t he be as good as any other one?
What power women had came through their fathers or came through the men that they were attached to.
The question is, can we talk about this without giving ammunition to the people who say, you know, there was no rape, or this is OK because everybody was just—it’s like Club Med, you know. Everybody’s just seeking everybody out. I mean, you trivialize the sexual abuse of a large number of African-American women by focusing in on this one thing. That’s the fear.
But, on the other hand, I do think it’s worthwhile to talk about individual lives in slavery.
Bouie: Sexual abuse between masters and slaves, unusual family situations like the one that the Jeffersons and the Hemingses had, had to have been relatively common in the areas where slavery had taken a hold.
Was it something that slaveholders tried to hide from the public as much as they could?
Gordon-Reed: People didn’t talk about it.
Gordon-Reed: Well, let’s put it this way, I’ll pull back from that. People in Jefferson’s community talked about the Hemings family.
There are number of blind items in newspapers in the 1790s; you could figure out—sort of like Page Six of the Post.
And visitors to Monticello talked about it. The family doesn’t talk about it. But it’s something that’s known in the community.
It’s kind of hard to hide kids. And this is what makes it different from, you know, the English upper classes, who, if a maid got pregnant by a man, and, you know, was bought off, or left, or whatever—the kid was white, right?
But mixed-race people are identifiable. And so people knew that this stuff was going on.
And Northerners coming down to visit Virginia in particular were sort of shocked by the number of mixed-race people that they saw—adulterated was the phrase one person used.
Bouie: Right. Would critics of slavery use this sort of thing as part of their critique?
Gordon-Reed: Yeah, the misuse of African-American women, the rape of enslaved women, was used by abolitionists to talk about, you know, one of the endemic features of slavery in the South.
Onion: And the weirdness of someone selling their daughter, or, you know, their brother or whatever.
Gordon-Reed: Well, people did that. I mean, it was interesting—a member of Jefferson’s family said that he’d grown up hearing the Hemings story as an example of Jefferson’s goodness, because he freed the children.
And so the demarcation between a good slave owner with slave children and a bad one was one who didn’t free children and one who freed children.
Bouie: As we were wrapping up our conversation with Dr. Gordon-Reed, I asked her about sort of Jefferson’s standing in public memory.
I’ve referenced multiple times thus far that I went to UVA, and one of the things that interesting about Jefferson’s standing at UVA is that I think a lot of students had a hard time reconciling this very brilliant mind and this vital person in our history and also Jefferson the slaveholder. Jefferson the innovator in the art of slave-driving.
And I asked Dr. Gordon-Reed if she had thoughts on this challenge of reconciling the two Jeffersons into a single person.
Gordon-Reed: Well, I have difficulty understanding why it’s such a hard thing to reconcile.
Gordon-Reed: I mean, he wasn’t born in New England. People don’t usually go far from what they know.
And just thinking about what 100 years from now, people will look back on and say, you know—
Onion: Global warming is real?
Gordon-Reed: Yeah, exactly.
I just don’t think it’s a worthwhile struggle, actually. I mean, it was what it was. My husband hates that phrase. But, you know, that was a less than admirable part of his life.
Hero worship is not a useful thing, I think. Because heroes are always going to have feet of clay at some point, because they’re human beings.
Onion: Alright, Jamelle. What do you think? It is what it is? Does that make sense to you as a stance? What do you think about what Dr. Gordon-Reed says?
Bouie: It does make sense to me as a stance. I think, as consumers of history in the modern period, and this is similar to being consumers of any kind of, you know, fiction, plays, or novels, or movies. We tend to want to have things be pat. To have them wrapped up neatly.
But the best history is looking at the broad picture as well as these individual, very human, lives. And human lives just aren’t that neat. And so I’m OK with looking at Jefferson, and seeing his many different moving and contradictory parts, and saying, “Well, that’s just Jefferson.”
And we should try to understand each of those parts, and not necessarily feel that they have to cohere into a single whole.
Onion: Totally agree. And I feel like that’s one of the major sort of differences between an academic approach to history, at least as I see it and a more popular one, is that quite often academics are just like, “Eh.” You know? They shrug. And they say, “OK, well the contradiction is what makes it interesting to me.”
The contradiction is what makes it fruitful as a topic of conversation. And we may not ever know. You know, we’ll never have a verdict, really. Because what’s the fun of a verdict?
I see where she’s coming from.
Bouie: In our next segment, we’re going to talk about family separation and the different ways people coped with being sold away from each other, and we’ll be talking to Heather Andrea Williams. But before we get to that interview, we have another break.
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Onion: Now we’re going to talk a little about the role of family separation in slavery.
So, Joseph Fossett, when Jefferson died, was set free, but his family was sold.
So, this is something that is obviously at the heart of a lot of people’s experiences in slavery, but that I feel like we don’t talk about enough.
Bouie: Right. I would agree that, I don’t think we tend to think about, not just family separation, but what that feels like.
I mean, today. You know, if you are away from your partner for a month or two months, for whatever reason, you can talk to them. You can give them a call. There are ways to stay in touch.
Then, if your child or your spouse was taken from you, you have no idea where they’ve gone. They’re effectively dead.
Onion: Yeah. And the sympathies of those around you who are in control of your life are not with you.
They don’t care.
Onion: Yeah. So, I read a really interesting book by Heather Williams, who is teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. And she’s a presidential professor of Africana studies. And she wrote a book called Help Me to Find My People: The African-American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.
So I spoke with Heather a little bit about the different ways that people would be separated.
So she mentioned sale as one major factor. You know, one major instance in which people would be become separated.
But she also mentioned that if a white family would decide to move.
And then, there’s the matter of inheritance and wills.
Heather Williams: When a slave owner died, that was a time when separations would take place. Because in the will the owner might leave some people to a daughter and her husband, others to a son. You know, if you had six children, the enslaved people would get divided up among them and they would not necessarily honor family groupings. Really, you’re looking at value. So in a slave society in America, wealth was in land and it was in people, in people’s bodies and in the work that they were able to do.
And so you’re going to divide people up according to their value. A man of aged 25 is going to be worth more than a man who’s 60 or a woman who’s 25. Women are going to work, but they’re going to expect more labor from a man.
Bouie: Was it common at all for children to be sold with their parents? My impression is that it wasn’t really at all. That this was a bit of a burden for the enslaver in question.
Onion: I think there’s sort of a variety, but Heather sort of made it clear to me that really, it was the discretion of the person who was buying. And the seller.
There were some instances in which there’s a woman who is being sold who does have an infant with her. And then, the infant becomes a problem when the coffle of people for sale is moving south.
And the seller just says like, “Ugh. Bother. I’m just going to take this baby and leave it with someone for free, because I don’t want to deal with this constant crying.”
My sense is that there were sort of slave owners who tried to make provisions for people to be sold together. But that that’s really just up to the discretion of the seller and the purchaser.
Bouie: So for every slaveholder who tried to be as benevolent as he could, there’s probably another who just didn’t particularly care either way.
Onion: Right. Or feels that they’re forced by economics to do something.
You know, like, “The amount of money I need is the amount of money this woman is going to bring. And I’m going to keep the kids, because they’re going to be laborers for me later.”
You know, “I’m not a bad person. But I’m just forced to do this.”
Which of course is a really terrible rationalization.
Onion: Yeah, kind of amazing.
Bouie: I’m sure when you’re in that position you can rationalize away a lot.
Onion: Right. Once there is a price put on someone, and once their worth is tied in with the rest of your net worth, there was no place for sentimentality.
So one of the things I found really interesting about Heather’s work was that she looked at a lot of narratives. Especially the Works Progress Administration narratives that were recorded in the 1930s, of people who had lived through enslavement.
Bouie: And for those who aren’t familiar with your New Deal lingo, the WPA is the Works Progress Administration.
It funded a whole bunch of different projects across the United States: parks, bridges, buildings, libraries, schools. And also, a project to record the narratives and voices of formerly enslaved people who were still living. Many of these people were quite young when they were slaves. They were little kids. Some were actually very old. There were a couple from people who were, you know, over 100. And so they were adults during the Civil War, which is really remarkable.
Onion: There’s some availability of the audio online and also transcripts. So, we’ll link to that in our supplemental material.
Bouie: But Dr. Williams, she used these?
Onion: Yes. And she used these in particular to find out how it affected the community in a given place and the people in a given place, when sale was rumored and when sales happened.
Williams: When an owner was very, very ill, the enslaved people in the slave quarters, in the community of slaves on that plantation or that farm, the adults knew that this meant that this person might die, and they knew that if the owner died that meant that they were vulnerable to sale, or to being divvied up among his heirs.
People talked about being children and overhearing these conversations among their parents and other people in the slave community, talking about what they thought would happen and whether they would be able to stay with their families or who would go with whom. Because they might know the children, they might know the heirs. And so they’re wondering, Where am I going to end up?
So the children start to pick up on this anxiety and this fear that the parents and the adults in their community were experiencing and expressing. Very often the children themselves didn’t understand it.
Then at the moment of separation, you see people talking about how excruciatingly painful it was. Somebody might describe his mother as just throwing herself on the ground begging, pleading, crying, asking that she get to keep at least one of her children. “Please let me keep my children.” And so you get that kind of pain and those expressions of grief.
For a while some of the children still don’t grasp it, and there’s this awareness that dawns on them over time. So, it’s when they are physically removed from the parents, when they’re being taken away, when they’re gone, you know, that night they realize what’s happening, they realized what’s happened. And they are wondering, you know, Will I see my parents again, will I see my mother again?
So, I think grief, anxiety—hope. There’s a lot of hope that I saw, where people are hoping that they’ll see their families again. Those who could write or those who could get access to somebody who would write on their behalf, writing out of this hope that this letter might reach the loved one.
Bouie: Rebecca, you have an example one of these letters, and it’s incredibly heartbreaking, so, I will let you read it.
Onion: Yeah. So this is a letter from Vilet Lester to her former mistress. And it was written on Aug. 29, 1857.
She had known this woman for a really long time. Heather talks about how this was actually her playmate, someone that she’d known when she was younger.
Which was kind of like a common practice on some plantations, where a same-age enslaved person and a kid would play together when they were young. And then sometimes the enslaved person would become the maid of the girl.
My loving Miss Patsey, I have long been wishing to embrace this present and pleasant opportunity of unfolding my feelings since I was constrained to leave my long-loved home and friends, which I cannot never give myself the least promise of returning to.
She lists a bunch of different times that she had been sold. And at the time she wrote the letter, she had been gone for about five years. But most importantly, she’s asking her old mistress to buy her again, basically.
So, she writes,
My dear mistress. I cannot tell my feelings, nor how bad I wish to see you, and old Boss, and Miss Rahol, and Mother. I do not know which I want to see the worst, Miss Rahol or Mother. I have thought that I wanted to see Mother, but never before did I know what it was to want to see a parent and could not. I wish you to give my love to old Boss, Miss Rahol, and Bailum.”
And give my manifold love to mother, brothers, and sister. And please to tell them, write to me. So I may hear from them if I cannot see them. And also, I wish you to write to me, and write to me all the news.
Probably the saddest part of the Vilet Lester letter is the part where she asks her old mistress to try to figure out what had happened to her daughter. You know, there’s a sort a little chain of custody that Vilet knows as to what happened to her.
She says she left her in Goldsborough with Mr. Walker. “I have not heard from her since. Walker said he was going to carry her to Rockingham and give her to his sister.” And Vilet’s current slaveholder has told her that he would buy her if Vilet could figure out where the daughter was. So Vilet’s asking her old mistress to try to track the daughter down.
Bouie: And letters weren’t the only way former slaves and enslaved people tried to communicate with loved ones.
There was a healthy network of word of mouth as well.
Williams: A slave trader who did a particular route going from Virginia to, let’s say Charleston, South Carolina, might pass through certain towns on a regular basis.
And sometimes they would have an enslaved person as an assistant. And so that person would carry news to certain communities or to certain people. If you saw that person, you might get some information.
There’s a man who recounted being sold away from his mother and his sister. I think they went to three different owners, partly because he says that he and his sister were the children of the owners, the white owners’ relatives, and the family was embarrassed by that and so they sold them away.
And he said, a man came to town, a black man came to the place where he worked—he worked at a hotel—and said he was looking for this boy, that his mother was looking for him.
And when the boy identified himself as the person he was looking for, the man handed him a piece of cloth. When he opened it there were some beads inside, some blue beads. And he recognized the beads because they had belonged to his mother’s mother. And he said, we had never had time to make a plan that this is something she would send, but he knew them and he recognized them, and he knew that they were very important to his mother. And that she had sent them as something that would let him know that this really was coming from her.
So she’s sending a message through this enslaved man, and the message is through these beads. This boy ran away and got to her—he had become literate, he said he took some paper and a pen with him because he wanted to be able to forge a pass so that he and his mother could move about, could escape. But by the time he got to her, she had despaired of ever being able to be free. She had tried to escape. Once she found out where he was, she had tried to get to him. She was caught, she was beaten, and so she had given up.
So I think sending messages in that way, sending this item that would be recognizable.
Bouie: You know, I have to imagine that for those few slaves that managed to escape, that was one way people tried to reconnect. Once out of bondage, trying to find their relatives the best they could.
Onion: Yes. And that was such a common scenario that someone desperate to see a family member, or a wife, or a husband again, would, when leaving the plantation, so inevitably be going there, to wherever the other person had been sold, that the slaveholders would predict where they were going in that way. You know, they would run ads in papers giving a physical description of a fugitive. And then often the ads would include, you know, “may be headed to X place because they have a relative there.”
Onion: Which I find remarkable because, on the one hand, white owners have sort of convinced themselves that black people don’t feel grief the same way. On the one hand, they could believe that. And on the other hand, they could be rational enough to know that, these people, if given a chance, would be trying to get back to their loved one.
Bouie: This pretty smart, you know, attempt to circumvent their slave’s escape betrays the extent to which slave owners did in fact understand that the people they had enslaved were people.
You know, in most ways, I’d say, slaveholder ideology was trying to rationalize away things that they actually saw in real life, up front, that they had to find some way to deal with.
Humans don’t like cognitive dissonance very much, and will go to great lengths to try to minimize it. And being a slaveholder has to be sort of a marathon exercise in cognitive dissonance.
Williams: I often hear people say, “Oh, white people didn’t think these people were human.” I always have to rebut that, but with, “Oh, here is one more sign that they knew they were human. Here’s another sign, and here’s another sign.”
One slaveholder who did leave some documentation, he says at one point, the people left behind are disconsolate. But he made a decision to sell 10 people because he was in debt, the sheriff was going to come and seize them, and he wanted to sell them directly so that he could get enough money to pay off the debt and possibly have some money left.
And so he sends them to the market and he names them, gives their first names in his diary. And he talks about the grief that the people still on his farm felt about losing their family members. And he says, maybe they’ll see each other again. “I feel really bad sending these people to be sold,” and “They’re not being sold for any fault of their own.” Then he says, “But I hope they bring a good price in the market and that I won’t have to do this again.”
You have someone like Thomas Jefferson. On the one hand in Notes on the State of Virginia, he says: “These negros don’t feel as deeply as white people feel. They don’t have the same capacity for deep feeling as we do.”
But you see him when he was president writing a letter back to Monticello, to say that a particular man who had been accused of murdering another enslaved man, he says: “If the courts don’t punish him then sell him to Georgia, because being separated from their families is the worst thing for them. It’s like death to them.”
That's just one of the kinds of contradictions that you find.
But I think we should expect to find contradictions in a system that’s one set of people using another set of people. You’ve got to find ways to tamp down the awareness that you have. You may not even get to guilt because you’re tamping down the consciousness of what you’re doing to other people.
Onion: Yeah. A pretty damning indictment.
Bouie: Especially of Jefferson. It’s part of what makes him such an interesting figure to study; he’s hyperaware of how wrong all of this is.
Onion: This example of leveraging people’s emotions as punishment is a striking one.
Bouie: To bring this to some kind of conclusion, Rebecca, could you remind me of what happened to Joseph Fossett at the end of his life?
Onion: He was able to get his wife and a number of his children out of slavery in the 1830s. They moved to Ohio, to Cincinnati. And they were able to get most of their children—they had 10—out of slavery by the 1850s.
And they were really influential in their community in Cincinnati. They were preachers, and caterers, and activists. They participated in the Underground Railroad. One of their daughters sheltered fugitive slaves.
Their descendants were activists in that same line. One of their descendants, William Monroe Trotter, was a journalist who wrote anti-lynching columns in the early 20th century, for example.
So in some ways, the Fossetts were a success story.
Bouie: I think that’s right, but it also seems like they just illustrate how resilient humans are, how much they can bounce back from degradation. Which is another way of saying that, the fact that they found success for themselves, doesn’t change the real horror of what they experienced as enslaved people. And as people who were separated from their families, at a time when that kind of separation really meant a kind of social death.
Onion: OK, so I think that’s a good place to wrap it up. Next time we’ll be talking about slavery on the frontier in the early 19th century, and we’ll also be talking about rebellions and revolts. And we’ll be doing that by talking about the life of Charles Deslondes, the leader of a revolt in Louisiana in 1811.
Bouie: Until then, this is the History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy.