1826 – 1865

After Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826, the indebtedness of his estate compelled his executors to sell his books and furniture, house and land, and the people he had considered his property. At auction sales in 1827 and 1829, 130 men, women, and children were sold away from their home and families. Children as young as nine were sold separately from their parents. Although Jefferson’s granddaughter reported that only one slave was sold outside Virginia, even those who had new masters in Albemarle or adjacent counties could not count on remaining near their relatives.

In the forty years until Emancipation, most of Monticello’s African Americans remained in slavery, and many lived close to Monticello. Others left, either involuntarily or by choice.  A stream of Virginians was moving westward to new pastures, taking their enslaved property with them.  We probably know of only a fraction of them. William Smith was taken to Kentucky, Wormley Hughes’s daughters to Missouri and Mississippi, Martha Ann Colbert to Arkansas Territory, and Susan Scott to northern Alabama. 

Seven people (all Hemings family members) were freed by the terms of Jefferson’s will or received unofficial freedom from his heirs. Others, among them Israel Gillette Jefferson and the children of Joseph Fossett, obtained their freedom by purchase. Almost all of these  free people left the land of slavery in the 1830s and 1840s for the free state of Ohio. The Fossetts and Israel Jefferson chose to settle in Cincinnati, the nation’s largest inland metropolis, while Madison and Eston Hemings  went to more rural Ross and Pike counties, where many free people of color from central Virginia had already settled.

At least two people made courageous gambles for freedom.  Isabella Fossett ran away successfully to Boston, but Brown Colbert had to travel to a new continent with a dangerous climate to become a free man.

1865 – 1920

The dynamic arcs of travel illustrated on this map are signs of a new era. Before the Civil War, many of the relocations of Monticello’s African Americans and their descendants were enforced journeys made by still-enslaved people.  Even those who were free, like the Hemingses and the Fossetts, were impelled to leave Virginia by the worsening conditions for free blacks there.  From 1865, an expanding transportation network made travel easier and everyone was free, free to choose their residences, free to seek a better life for their families.

Moses Gillette left Virginia after Emancipation to settle in Ohio near his brother Israel Gillette Jefferson.  Yet the search for greater opportunity led to separation as well as reunion.  Several descendants left the Ohio heartland for cities on the East and West Coasts.  Madison Hemings’s youngest daughter, Ellen Hemings Roberts, broke the pattern of her family members by leaving rural Ohio for a western city.  Her enterprising husband, Andrew J. Roberts, prospered in the booming city of Los Angeles.  Virginia and Maria Isaacs left their Ohio farm to live in Boston with their husbands, James Monroe Trotter and William H. Dupree, who had served in the 55th Massachusetts infantry regiment in the Civil War.  As the only fully-commissioned black army officers in Boston, they were conspicuous figures with a broader choice of careers than most black men.  They joined the U. S. Postal Service as clerks, pioneers in one of the few white-collar workplaces then open to African Americans. 

Eston Hemings Jefferson’s son John Wayles Jefferson was so taken with the rich cotton plantations he had seen when fighting the Confederates in the war that he left his family in Wisconsin to live in Memphis, Tennessee.  He became a very wealthy cotton broker and plantation owner there.  His brother Beverly Jefferson’s sons and nephew migrated from Wisconsin to the fastest-growing city in the nation, Chicago, to pursue their careers in business, law, and medicine.  One became a millionaire.

Present Day

The dots indicate the residences, at the time of their interviews, of nearly 180 people who participated in the Getting Word project. This map is not representative of the entire community of living descendants of Monticello’s African American community. If you wish to learn more about descendants in a particular place, you can enter a location in the Search box. Also, you can click on People and check the box to the left of the relevant family name.

In 1993, Lucia Stanton, the project director, and Dianne Swann-Wright, the project oral historian, began to trace the whereabouts of Monticello’s enslaved descendants, with the help of consultant Beverly Gray, a historian who had been studying the African American experience in southern Ohio for many years. The first event of the project was a reception that she organized in Chillicothe in 1993. Forty descendants of the Fossett and Hemings families attended.

Over the years more individuals came forward to share their stories. Staff traveled to Ohio many times and to Alabama twice; they visited the cities of Boston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Oakland, Seattle, and Washington, DC, where they recorded interviews, explored cemeteries, examined family photographs and documents, and were enriched by shared memories. Research in newspapers, private papers, and public records supplemented the interviews.