DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – A new exhibit at the African American Museum at the State Fair of Texas offers a taste of history. It’s called, Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.
No one said the taste wouldn’t be bittersweet.
“When I walk through this exhibit, I am filled with joy. Pride. Some pain, because I know that these people suffered,” says Gayle Jessup White. “Mostly, I’m filled with a sense of belonging.”
Because this is her past. Her people. Her family– including the nation’s prolific author of freedom, and the man who owned them, Thomas Jefferson.
Jessup White says she was about 13 years old when she overheard an older sister’s off hand comment, that reordered her world.
“I heard my sister say ‘and I’m a descendant of Thomas Jefferson,’ and my ears perked up, because I’d never heard that story! And I was sort of stunned by it, because we had never talked about it.”
Her decades-long journey to confirm what she had heard ultimately led her to Monticello. It was there that she found her roots and a view of this nation’s complicated history, up close.
“My ancestors were not free,” says Jessup White. “When Thomas Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence, he owned more than 80 people. That’s what this exhibition is all about.`Paradox of liberty’. America is a complicated place.”
Jessup White now works as Monticello’s Community Engagement Officer and traveled to Dallas for the exhibit’s debut. She credits Dallas City Council Member Kevin Felder, and a chance conversation with him in a cab, and his perseverance in working to bring the exhibit to Dallas.
She says it is important for the nation to embrace and learn from that complicated history, and limited view of freedom.
“Most Americans weren’t included. Women weren’t included. Native Americans weren’t included. White men that didn’t own property weren’t included. We have fought to claim that freedom. All of us. For everyone. Diversity if the key to America’s success and always has been,” adds Jessup White. “Freedom has involved to include everyone, and that fight has made us stronger.”
And while Sally Hemings (her great great great great Aunt)– the slave woman with whom Jefferson fathered several children– is perhaps the nation’s most famous slave, she was still a slave. And the exhibit honors not only her, but the other enslaved families of Monticello.
“I believe it’s important for people to talk as honestly as they possibly can about race,” says Jessup White. “Let’s talk about how slavery and the vestiges of slavery still impact us today. We still live with that original sin of America. Too many Americans are still treated like second class citizens. That’s because of slavery. We have to talk about that.”
The exhibit features items never before seen outside of Monticello. It will be on display at the African American Museum at Fair Park through December 31.