We stood in the entrance hall at Monticello, my friend and I, listening to the house guide. It had been a few years since my last visit, but the artifacts and information looked and sounded familiar.

After the house, we toured the gardens. Unlike my previous visits to Monticello, this time the guides made a special point to explain the Foundation’s position on Jefferson and slavery and the evidence that Jefferson had fathered six children by his slave Sally Hemings.

“Jefferson abhorred slavery,” the guides said. Throughout his life, Jefferson wrote that the institution was contrary to the laws of nature. In his public life, Jefferson worked towards ending the slave trade and promoted policies and legislation for gradual emancipation.

At Monticello, slaves learned skills and trades so they would be able to support themselves and their families when freed. But, perhaps due to financial pressures, Jefferson owned slaves all of his life and freed only a few of his slaves upon his death.

And for all of his uniqueness, Jefferson aligned his thinking about racial integration with the prevailing cultural bias of the time and advocated the removal of blacks from the United States upon emancipation. Jefferson accomplished a great deal in his life, but the abolition of slavery was not one of them. That was for a future generation.

I was reminded of my years of teaching, sitting at graduation watching my students walk across the stage to collect their diplomas. Some had accomplished far beyond the norm. Most met the requirements for graduation, but a few had more to do. It would be up to someone else to guide the growth of those graduates.

I could say the same from myself: accomplishments noted, requirements met and necessary growth ahead.

And at the end of life, who is to judge Jefferson, my students, or me?


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