Truth and Reconciliation at Thomas Jefferson’s Retreat Home
We, as individuals, are convinced that our own explanation and perception of truth forms a valid, logical framework. We gain knowledge of truth from first hand experiences, from higher authorities, and from people we respect.
But whose truth are we talking about?
what happened to whom, where, and when
the way you perceive or experience something first-hand
shared or preserved in a cultural community
events, such as slavery, that should never be repeated
Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers and the third president of the U.S., owned a retreat home and plantation amongst the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the state of Virginia. This retreat home, Poplar Forest, is located just shy of 80 miles from his primary home of Monticello.
A National Historic Landmark, Poplar Forest, encompasses more than 4,800 acres and includes the main house, slave quarters, and an extensive historic landscape. The stories of this place consist not only of Jefferson and his grandchildren, but also the community of enslaved men, women, and children who lived and labored at Poplar Forest.
By gathering a variety of resource, materials, and perspectives from the site, Poplar Forest has begun piecing together the interconnected stories from each segment of this community. The stories of Poplar Forest promise to bring the community together with a sense of our shared heritage; to attract local, national and international visitors; and to inspire people across the nation and the world to consider their own pursuit of happiness, the foundational concept of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Yet, noting the downward trend in visitation and public support for historic houses, the Poplar Forest team realized that they too needed to build a stronger future.
The Planning Process
Poplar Forest worked with 106 Group to develop a Master Interpretive Plan and design for new exhibits. As part of the process, the local African American, slave-descendant community was engaged to broaden perspectives of the stories being told at the site. By providing the stakeholders a platform to voice their perspectives of the site, it helped transfer authority to community members, and facilitated safe forums for honest dialog on the difficult topics of slavery and race.
The inclusiveness of the planning and engagement work started Poplar Forest down a path of healing through enabling dialogue around all four concepts of truth. This holistic approach to community engagement resulted in a new vision and helped to reestablish Poplar Forest as a site of national importance that is both meaningful and engaging to visitors of all backgrounds.
The process of identifying stakeholders from the community began with building robust institutional partnerships. Poplar Forest reached out to Lynchburg’s Legacy Museum of African American History (Legacy Museum) to partner on a workshop. The Legacy Museum invited leaders from the African American community, who provided local expertise and included Legacy Museum board members; a former mayor of Lynchburg; current and past presidents of the NAACP local chapter; advocates from the Race & Racism Dialogue: Many Voices, One Community; and other community members.
At the first workshop, participants discussed how Poplar Forest related to societal paradigms and racial divides born out of slavery. To encourage active participation and clarify key issues, small group discussions were facilitated and ground rules were established immediately to address potential conflicts. During the group discussions, our team prompted conversations with questions about why Poplar Forest matters to them; what visitors should know about Thomas Jefferson and the plantation; how Poplar Forest should convey the story of slavery; and how the Poplar Forest site might have been different if it had been under African American leadership. The format of the questions helped participants focus their feedback through stories and experiences. Many participants had practical suggestions for integrating interpretation, while others were deeply reflective on the African American community’s struggle, both historically and today.
How do we convey truth at heritage places? Through the interpretive planning and active community engagement process, the four truths provided an informal framework for discussions. These conversations led to a more authentic, inviting and rich experience for all community members planning for and ultimately visiting and working at Poplar Forest. The site continues to build relationships through enhanced programming and with ongoing input from the African American advisory group.
Thomas Jefferson is known as one of the great American presidents, a founding father, and a co-author of the Declaration of Independence. He played a significant role in the creation of this nation and our concepts of freedom and democracy. But Thomas Jefferson was also a slave owner.
There is painful irony in the fact that the author of the notion that ‘all men are created equal’ was a slaveowner to more than 600 during his lifetime. However, a holistic view of his legacy that includes ownership of slaves and fathering children with an enslaved woman is vital and should be shared as an integral facet of our nation’s history. Sharing the whole story reflects African American experiences and our ability as a society to be honest about our historical leaders and heroes. The stories of the slaves in the kitchen or in the fields at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest are just as important to remember as the man writing his great works in the study upstairs. In order to create an authentic and more meaningful view of American history, we should not hesitate to embrace these broader truths.
Personal truths can be a powerful tool for interpretation and change the way we perceive basic facts. For example, the fact that over 200 enslaved men, women, and children worked at Poplar Forest will likely provoke less emotion compared to examining the story behind one of the slaves who lived and worked at Poplar Forest. By providing a personal story, visitors are more likely to connect to the hardships experienced and feel empathy towards that individual.
On November 15th, 1818, Hannah, one of Jefferson’s cooks, wrote a letter to Jefferson, expressing her concerns for his poor health and his missed presence at Poplar Forest. She ends her letter by stating,
“…Master I doubt my ignorant letter will be much encouragement to you as know I am a poor ignorant creature, this leaves us all well adieu, I am your humble servant, Hannah.”
How do her words make you feel?
What do you read between the lines?
The Poplar Forest team shared the evolving interpretation and stories in multiple ways throughout the site and community. At the site, exhibits are being redone and interpretive training for long-term docents is more thorough and inclusive of the whole story of the site. Perspectives have been sought from a broader spectrum of partners, including academics with topic expertise and local businesses who use the site grounds for special events. These seemingly small actions highlight the importance of sharing the new approach to interpretation with the greater community. By sharing this new process and these hidden stories, it helps address the social truths of Poplar Forest.
The first step to healing truth is acknowledgment.
Acknowledgment that there are events in our past that are sensitive, heart-breaking, and angering to this day. Just because a truth makes us feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shared.
Acknowledging a painful truth in a respectful and open manner is important. To make the site relevant to a broader community, the uneven interpretation of slavery at Poplar Forest had to be addressed. By telling the whole story of the site, Poplar Forest not only becomes more authentic, but it draws in a larger, more diverse audience of visitors. During Poplar Forest planning process, facilitated group meetings helped begin and continue this dialogue. it has been ongoing among the board, staff, and volunteers. Addressing healing truths can be a long process but, in the end, it can begin to mend past wounds within the community and provide more visitors a meaningful experience.
Truth must be at the heart of all our work, whatever our profession.
Acknowledging the four notions of truth should form the fiber of our efforts as heritage professionals. To interpret heritage places appropriately, we must cultivate an understanding of the facts, concerns, and experiences – i.e. the truths – held by the communities with whom we work. Accounting for these multiple truths through dialogue and healing, can lead to more valuable outcomes, and in our management plans, interpretive exhibits, and visitor experiences. Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest shows how meaningful public engagement, equitable collaborations, and inclusive storytelling have sought ways of healing historical traumas.
A big round of thanks goes out to all involved in this project.
The 106 Group is honored to have worked with the Poplar Forest team to develop a Master Interpretive Plan and be part of the ongoing exhibit planning, design and installation work. The Legacy Museum of African American History staff hosted multiple conversations regarding African Americans’ representation at Poplar Forest and deserve high praise for their honest and thoughtful contributions to the conversation. Thank you also to three important scholars, Dr. Spencer Crew, Dr. Peter Onuf, and Dr. Dan Druckenbrod, for their input at the “Scholar’s Workshop” and to the experts at Poplar Forest—staff, volunteers, and consultants—for sharing the specific stories of this place.