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Monticello chief to resign after 15 years

The president of the foundation dedicated to preserving Monticello and the legacy of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson is resigning.

After 15 years at the helm of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Leslie Greene Bowman announced Tuesday she would be leaving the post April 30.

Architectural historian Gardiner Hallock, who has served Monticello as a senior leader for over a decade, has been tapped to serve as the interim president while the board searches for a permanent replacement, according to the foundation.

“It has been the greatest honor of my career,” Bowman said in a statement announcing her departure. “I will cherish the work and those alongside me who made it possible.”

During her tenure, Bowman oversaw the launch of a new visitor center, opened the house’s upstairs – long closed due to its narrow staircases – and restored or rebuilt several structures around Mulberry Row, the center of artisanal work for many of the enslaved people at the estate.

“I have had the privilege to be a steward of one of the world’s most precious places, both a World Heritage Site for its expression of human creative genius, and an International Site of Conscience for its painful history with slavery,” Bowman continued in her statement.

Bowman declined a request for comment from The Daily Progress.

Bowman, 66, came to Monticello in 2008 after running Winterthur, a historic house in northern Delaware. Before that, she taught American decorative arts history at the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles.

At Monticello, Bowman excelled in fundraising, multiplying the donor base sixfold and bringing in at least $20 million in donations from David M. Rubenstein, a leader of the Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity firm.

Fulfilling plans envisioned before her arrival, Bowman ensured that most modern intrusions, such as offices, were removed from the hill that Jefferson named Monticello, or “little mountain” in Italian.

“We have returned Monticello as closely as we could to Jefferson’s vision and creation, and restored lost places, voices and stories,” Bowman said in her statement.

Some of those voices come through “Getting Word,” an oral history project crafted from the narratives of nearly 1,000 descendants of the enslaved people who lived and worked at Monticello.

For Bowman, navigating the ideals of the man who wrote “all mean are created equal” while letting his overseer whip 12-year-old boys if they didn’t make nails fast enough presented a challenge.

Over the course of his lifetime, Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, served as the nation’s first secretary of state, second vice president and third president, founded the University of Virginia – and also enslaved more than 600 people. Bowman and her staff were charged with rationalizing the reality of Jefferson the slaveholder with his celebrity as “the sage of Monticello.”

It was Bowman’s predecessor, historian Daniel P. Jordan, who had to deal with the 1999 fallout from DNA testing that, combined with historical accounts, showed that Jefferson fathered numerous children with Sally Hemings, who was enslaved at Monticello.

In 2018, 10 years after joining the foundation, Bowman presided over the opening of a ground-floor room, long used as public restroom, that told the story of Hemings.

As a teen, Hemings traveled to France with Jefferson and then as an adult won freedom for four surviving children and lived out her final years with two of her children at a house in Charlottesville.

Like the University of Virginia, Monticello is not just a historic landmark but a huge economic force. According to 2019 federal filings, the last year of available data, the nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation recorded $48 million in investment income. Combined with grants and ticket sales, the foundation grossed $69 million that year and had $344 million in assets. Bowman was then earning $560,000 in compensation.

“Leslie’s efforts ensured that Monticello’s 21st century reach is as expansive as Jefferson’s vision,” Melody Barnes, a former foundation board chair, said in a statement. “Because of her dedication, Monticello plays an active role in bringing the past forward and contributing to today’s essential contemporary debates about freedom, religious liberty, education, and more.”


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