In a world based on slavery, freedom and family were often in conflict.  Leaving Monticello meant leaving loved ones.  The few instances of people running away in quest of permanent freedom were young unmarried men, and they rarely succeeded.  In their daily struggle against slavery’s indignities, most of Monticello’s African Americans resisted slavery in other ways.  Their day-to-day resistance, marked by ingenuity and cooperation, helped to moderate harsh working conditions and preserve customary rights. 

Struggles against slavery did not end for families who found freedom before 1865.  Members of the Fossett family in both Ohio and Virginia forged free papers and harbored fugitive slaves in their houses. Thomas and Jemima Woodson’s family in Ohio paid a heavy price for participation in the Underground Railroad.  Two of their sons were beaten to death for assisting runaway slaves and refusing to reveal their hiding places. 

Schools and churches were important sites of resistance to the institution of slavery.  Within these independent institutions on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, African Americans worked to strengthen education and organized efforts to purchase or bring people out of slavery.  Joseph Fossett’s son Jesse Fossett and others left one Cincinnati church and founded another because the old church’s members “fellowshipped” with slaveholders.  Betty Brown’s Freeman grandchildren in Washington, DC, were organizers and speakers at events to raise money to free slaves.  At one fundraiser Edwin Freeman spoke “on slavery and freedom.”

The descendants who faced artillery fire on the battlefield in the Civil War  would have agreed with John Freeman Shorter, who wrote to President Lincoln in 1864: “We came to fight for liberty, justice & equality.  These are gifts we prize more highly than gold.”

Ann-Elizabeth Fossett Isaacs, whose farmhouse in Ohio is still remembered as a station on the Underground Railroad

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“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)