Fighting for Freedom and Equality

Freedom for Monticello’s African-American residents did not bring an end to their struggles against slavery. They assisted those still in bondage by purchasing family members, forging free papers, and joining the Underground Railroad. After Emancipation, their descendants continued the campaign for liberty and equality—in public assemblies, in newspaper columns, on the battlefield during the Civil War, in confrontations with American presidents, and at southern lunch counters.

Freedom & Equality Stories

“I Have Been Almost Completely Exhausted”

HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.                  Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I…
“I Have Been Almost Completely Exhausted”

In 1863 Lt. Col. John Wayles Jefferson writes his brother Beverly Jefferson during the siege of Vicksburg.

“HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.

                 Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I cannot write much, as I have no time or spirits. Since the 2nd of May up to yesterday (excepting two days I was in Jackson, Miss.,) I have been continually on the March and fighting the rebels. I had not until to-day changed my clothes or had a decent meal for nineteen days. We marched around Vicksburg on the Louisiana side 90 miles, crossed the river at Grand Gulf, marched about 170 miles in a roundabout way to Jackson, Miss. Our brigade charged the rebel works at Jackson, and were the first troops in the town. Four days before this we met the rebels at Mississippi Springs, and had a hard skirmish but whipped them (I am speaking about our regiment and our brigade); we have had a number of other battles. At Jackson Major General Sherman made me Provost Marshal of the town, had also charge of all the prisoners and was ordered to destroy five million dollars worth of rebel property. We are now in the rear of Vicksburg, and in sight of the city. We have been fighting for four days, and have them surrounded. Their entrenchments and breastworks are awful to attack. Their works were stormed to-day by part of our army, and to-morrow all the army will attack the works at 9 a. m. We are losing a great many men, and there will be an awful slaughter to-morrow.  We have captured 81 cannon, 10,000 stands of small arms at the different battles (not Vicksburg). I was ordered to turn over 5,500 prisoners in my charge to-day, and that is why I am here. Will return to my regiment in one hour which is only five miles distant. We just lived on what we could pick up during the past three weeks, and I have been almost completely exhausted from hunger, loss of sleep and fatigue. Vicksburg will be ours in a day or two, but it has and will cost as many thousand lives.

I write this hoping you may get it in season.

Yours &c.                       

J. W. JEFFERSON.” (Weekly Wisconsin Patriot, 13 June 1863)

“The Great Changes Which Time Brings About”

When I came to Cincinnati, I was employed as a waiter in a private house, at ten dollars a month…
“The Great Changes Which Time Brings About”

Israel Jefferson describes his work in Ohio and his visit to Thomas Jefferson’s grandson after the Civil War.

“When I came to Cincinnati, I was employed as a waiter in a private house, at ten dollars a month for the first month.  From that time on I received $20, till I went on board a steamboat, where I got higher wages still.  In time, I found myself in receipt of $50 per month, regularly, and sometimes even more.  I resided in Cincinnati about fourteen years, and from thence came on to the farm I am now on, in Pebble township, on Brushy Fork of Pee Pee creek.  Have been here about sixteen years.

“Since my residence in Ohio I have several times visited Monticello.  My last visit was in the fall of 1866.  Near there I found the same Jefferson Randolph, whose service as administrator I left more than forty years ago, at Monticello.  He had grown old, and was outwardly surrounded by the evidences of former ease and opulence gone to decay.  He was in poverty.  He had lost, he told me, $80,000 in money by joining the South in rebellion against the government.  Except his real estate, the rebellion stripped him of everything, save one old, blind mule.  He said that if he had taken the advice of his sister, Mrs. Cooleridge [Ellen Coolidge], gone to New York, and remained there during the war, he could have saved the bulk of his property.  But he was a rebel at heart, and chose to go with his people.  Consequently, he was served as others had been—he had lost all his servants and nearly all his personal property of every kind.  I went back to Virginia to find the proud and haughty Randolph in poverty, at Edge Hill, within four miles of Monticello, where he was bred and born.  Indeed, I then realized, more than ever before, the great changes which time brings about in the affairs and circumstances of life.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)

“Glory! Glory!”

Vicksburg is ours. Glory!  Glory!  Glory!  I have just returned from the city and actually saw the heads, hides and…
“Glory! Glory!”

Lt. Col. John Wayles Jefferson reports the long-awaited surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.

“Vicksburg is ours. Glory!  Glory!  Glory!  I have just returned from the city and actually saw the heads, hides and entrails of mules which the rebels have been subsisting on for days.  We all feel so joyful today. Even the poor sickly soldiers in the hospitals seem to revive, and look well again. Congress, at its next session, must be petitioned to add 24 hours to the 4th of July, making it 48 hours long, because hereafter we cannot possibly get done celebrating the day in 24 hours.” (Wisconsin State Journal, July 1863)

“I Treasured It Up In My Heart”

Since I have been in Ohio I have learned to read and write, but my duties as a laborer would…
“I Treasured It Up In My Heart”

Israel Jefferson remembers the Marquis de Lafayette’s remarks about slavery and slave education.

“Since I have been in Ohio I have learned to read and write, but my duties as a laborer would not permit me to acquire much of an education.  But such as I possess I am truly thankful for, and consider what education I have as a legitimate fruit of freedom.

The private life of Thomas Jefferson, from my earliest remembrance, in 1804, till the day of his death, was very familiar to me.  For fourteen years I made the fire in his bedroom and private chamber, cleaned his office, dusted his books, ran of errands, and attended him about home.  He used to ride out to his plantations almost every fair day, when at home, but unlike most other Southern gentlemen in similar circumstances, unaccompanied by any servant.  Frequently gentlemen would call upon him on business of great importance, whom I used to usher into his presence, and sometimes I would be employed in burnishing or doing some other work in the room where they were.  On such occasions I used to remain; otherwise I retired and left the gentlemen to confer together alone.  In those times I minded but little concerning the conversations which took place between Mr. Jefferson and his visitors.  But I well recollect a conversation he had with the great and good Lafayette, when he visited this country in 1824 and 1825, as it was of personal interest to me and mine.  General Lafayette and his son George Washington, remained with Mr. Jefferson six weeks, and almost every day I took them out to a drive.

On the occasion I am now about to speak of, Gen. Lafayette and George were seated in the carriage with him.  The conversation turned upon the condition of the colored people—the slaves.  Lafayette spoke English indifferently; sometimes I could scarcely understand him.  But on this occasion my ears were eagerly taking in every sound that proceeded from the venerable patriot’s mouth.

Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightfully hold ownership in his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money in behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle—the freedom of mankind; that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage, (which seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be unusually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were educated, and so on.  Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free, but did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom.  He seemed to think that the time had not then arrived.  To the latter proposition of Gen. Lafayette, Mr. Jefferson in part assented.  He was in favor of teaching the slaves to learn to read print; that to teach them to write would enable them to forge papers, when they could no longer be kept in subjugation.

This conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my heart.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)