When Myra Anderson first heard that her family was descended from slaves at Monticello, she didn’t believe it.
Her grandmother was the first to mention the family’s history, and Anderson thought it wasn’t the case.
“At the time, I remember telling my brother that Grandma is not well because there’s no way I was believing what she was saying,” said Anderson, a descendant of the Hern family, which later changed its name to Hearn and Hearns. “She didn’t give much information, but I remember her planting that seed there.”
More than 100 people packed into the Northside branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library on Monday evening to hear the stories of descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves.
Niya Bates, Monticello’s director of Arican American history and the Getting Word Oral History Project, said Monday’s event, titled “Roots and Remembrance: From the Descendants of Monticello’s Enslaved Families,” was the first to acknowledge the history of the auction block sales of Jefferson’s slaves.
The discussion was built around the sale of 130 slaves at auctions in January 1827 and January 1829 that dispersed the enslaved people from Jefferson’s estate.
“This sale tore apart families,” Bates said.
Jefferson’s heirs sold his possessions and slaves to cover debts that he left upon his death.
Bates said the 1829 sale was held at the Eagle Tavern in Court Square in downtown Charlottesville. That sale saw 33 people sold for $18,300.
Jefferson’s Monticello and surrounding land sold for about $7,000, Bates said.
The descendants told stories about how they found out that their ancestors were enslaved at Monticello and shared some of that history. Their ancestors were chefs, farm workers and overseers, and the families went on to establish careers, including as grocers and bricklayers.
Many of the descendants were emotional when discussing their story.
“It still, still, still evokes a lot of emotion for me,” Anderson said.
Joan Burton, a descendant of the Gillette family, said slavery wasn’t discussed when she was growing up.
“When I was growing up, Monticello was a place you didn’t want to go or go near,” she said.
Burton’s first attempt to learn about her heritage came when she worked on her family tree with her daughter in the early 1990s.
Eventually, her research hit a roadblock. However, while reading a book during an illness, she saw mention of the family name.
Burton said it’s important for everyone to know their history. She’s struggled to balance Jefferson’s other achievements with the fact that he owned slaves.
“I never really came to terms with people who say Jefferson didn’t like slavery because I felt like he was totally involved with it,” she said. “I think he was smart enough to know better.”
Deborah Granger, a descendant of Isaac Jefferson Granger, said that going to Monticello can be painful, but it’s an important part of understanding family history.
“You have to go up there,” she said. “You have to sit there and just feel their presence.”
J. Calvin Jefferson, a former archivist at the National Archives and descendant of the Granger, Evans and Hemings families, said he learned of history through his own research over the years.
Jefferson said the descendants find that they have a lot in common and their stories are intertwined.
“There’s a lot of entanglements going on between the families at Monticello,” he said. “You don’t know who you’re related to on that mountaintop until you start listening to some of the stories.”
Anderson said the descendants have discovered a large family and they can put a story to their names.
“It’s no longer this abstract thought that my ancestors were slaves,” she said. “You know everything about them.”