CHARLOTTESVILLE — Though Charlottesville is often associated with Thomas Jefferson, a tour Saturday gave attendees a glimpse into the history of early African American residents who helped to build the city.
Tying into the Unity Days project, the “Monticello to Main Street” tour was presented by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello in an effort to highlight “contributions from people of color who helped create our local community and helped redefine the meaning of freedom in America.”
Unity Days itself is a series of events intended to help “heal and unify” the Charlottesville community while working toward “racial and economic justice.” The events were created in response to the white supremacist rallies held in the city starting in May 2017, in particular the deadly Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017.
Led by Monticello tour guides David Thorson and Liz Marshall, more than three dozen area residents toured five familiar locations on and around the Downtown Mall, quietly listening to a history rarely heard.
The tour mainly focused on the Hemings family, which Thorson said is perhaps the most well-documented enslaved family in U.S. history.
“I want to talk about the journey of those once enslaved by Thomas Jefferson in the city of Charlottesville and then beyond,” he said. “But believe me, we’re not doing a disservice to the other enslaved families and communities who once called Charlottesville their home and whose descendants still do.”
Beginning at the slave auction block adjacent to the Albemarle Circuit Court, Thorson said the block was located there so new owners of the enslaved could register their new property at the courthouse. Though the construction of new buildings has since impeded the view, he said Monticello could be seen from the auction block at one point.
The first member of the Hemings family to find freedom, Mary Hemings, eventually fell in love with Revolutionary War Col. Thomas Bell, giving birth to several children. An eventual descendant of hers, Robert Scott, played a major role in shaping black Charlottesville, Thorson said.
“He’s born the year of the Louisiana Purchase and dies when William McKinley was president and the United States has become an empire — 1899,” Thorson said of Scott. “His life spans almost the entire 19th century. Can you imagine what he saw over the course of his life, the people he encountered in Charlottesville?”
Scott, born to a white father and a black mother, straddled the line between races, Thorson said, having himself legally declared neither white or black. This gave him some social mobility and eventually would allow him to be buried in the Maplewood Cemetery, originally designated for white people.
Another of the Hemings descendants, Joseph Fossett, who was eventually freed by Jefferson in his will, built a blacksmith shop on Main Street, which is now the Downtown Mall. Eventually, the Fossett family would leave Charlottesville for Cleveland, Ohio, where they would help fight for rights for black Americans and helped enslaved people escape to freedom in Canada.
During the 19th century, many freed black Americans, or “freedmen,” would buy their family members and not free them due to laws that required newly freedmen to move out of state, Thorson said. By buying family members, freedmen could keep their families together.
Another Hemings family descendant, John Wayles Jefferson — the grandson of Sally Hemings and Jefferson — was born in Charlottesville but moved north and fought for the Union army as a colonel in the Civil War, Thorson said.
“There’s a lot of controversy about how we memorialize people in this city, and there are memorials that were erected years ago that say a lot about the city of Charlottesville. There are three memorials just north of us,” Thorson said. “The question that I have about statues is this: I don’t care about those statues, if you’re going to erect a memorial to a hero of the Civil War who was born in Charlottesville, [John Wayles Jefferson] statue is the one I want to visit.”
As the tour wound down, Albemarle County resident Sarah Holbrook said she was glad to learn about this part of local history.
“It’s really interesting to learn about the African American history of Charlottesville,” she said. “A few decades, ago you never would have heard about it.”
Charlene Green, head of the Human Rights Commission and an organizer behind Unity Days, said Monticello will be offering the tour again in two weeks and then again on the week of the Aug. 12 rally anniversary.
Green said Unity Days is the city’s attempt to redo and acknowledge what happened in August 2017.
“Last year didn’t work with thousands of law enforcement folks coming in and surrounding the city, creating tension, and nothing positive came out of that other than nobody being badly hurt,” she said.
Green said she hopes to work out a deal with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello to continue and expand the tour after the Unity Days events end.