New Technology Will Give Voice to Enslaved Africans Held at Thomas Jefferson’s Mansion, Despite Efforts to Rewrite American History

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An aerial view of Monticello shows Mulberry Row to the right of Thomas Jefferson's house. (Robert Llewellyn/ Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)
An aerial view of Monticello shows Mulberry Row to the right of Thomas Jefferson’s house. (Robert Llewellyn/ Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)

 

NPR reports a new app is using 21st century technology to give voice to the more than 600 enslaved Africans who lived and worked at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate. The app gives visitors to the estate pointers about significant locations and also explores some of the enslaved African’s stories in depth.

“The museum has launched a mobile app— called Slavery at Monticello— that helps visitors visualize the space, stretching along a 1,000-foot path to the south side of the presidential villa in Charlottesville, Va.,” reports NPR.

The app, designed by Bluecadet Interactive, has been downloaded more than 7,500 times.

“The Slavery at Monticello smartphone app allows users to explore the lives of the slaves who lived on Mulberry Row. Users who visit Monticello can take advantage of the free app’s geolocation feature to learn about specific sites there,” according to NPR. “The geolocated app, which is free, allows visitors to explore the history of the patch of ground they are standing on.”

Founding father Thomas Jefferson was a complicated figure. While known for being a Renaissance man who was skilled in politics, art, science and international diplomacy, he also kept a number of enslaved Africans and fathered several children with his concubine, Sally Hemings. Today, Jefferson has several Black descendants. Hemings’ children, fathered by Jefferson, were still enslaved Africans. This fact tends to cast a shadow over the legacy of the founding father, since he essentially enslaved his own offspring.

“In more than 100 pieces of content, categorized by site, theme or person, the digital exhibition reveals the painful moral contradictions of the era, played out in Jefferson’s own home,” said the NPR article. “Those interested… will learn about the Hemings dynasty, whose matriarch Sally was Jefferson’s concubine and is believed to have had six of his children.”

All 10 enslaved Africans Jefferson freed were Hemings family members.

Bill Webb, a 73-year-old New York City resident, narrated the introduction of the app. Webb is a descendant of Brown Colbert, who worked as a nail maker at Monticello. Colbert died after emigrating to Liberia, an African country set up as a colony for freed American enslaved Africans. Webb said although some of the stories about enslaved Africans are uncomfortable, they still need to be talked about.

“Many people isolate their information. I believe it’s to be shared, even if it’s painful information,” said Webb. “It’s a fact and reality of American life.”

However, while the new app and exhibits at Monticello are not shying away from America’s painful racial past, some parts of the country are literally trying to whitewash history. Some Southern states have made changes to high school curricula which tend to downplay slavery and focus more on American exceptionalism. Conservatives, such as Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, say Advanced Placement (AP) history classes would cause students to grow up hating America.

As Atlanta Blackstar reported, in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, the AP exam was the subject of political debates. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma state legislature effectively banned the course in public high schools. Further, the Texas state education agency, dominated by Republicans, pressured the College Board to rewrite the curriculum. Now, new textbooks will  teach students in the predominantly Latino and Black Texas public schools that the war was fought over sectionalism and states’ rights, with slavery in a secondary role.

It’s unfortunate American history has become a political football, because students should have an accurate view of the past, including the more painful parts. By suggesting that slavery was only a blip in U.S. history, white superiority and privilege is only further reinforced, and American society will never properly address the remnants of institutional and systemic racism.

 

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