Jefferson Memorial exhibit update will acknowledge slavery record

Washington Examiner – by Joel Gehrke

An exhibit alongside the nation’s chief memorial to Thomas Jefferson will receive an update that reflects “the complexity” of his status as a founder of the United States and a slaveholder, according to stewards of the National Mall.

The decision reflects an acute awareness of the furor currently surrounding Confederate statues across the country. A non-profit group that provides critical support for the National Mall is bracing for similar protests against the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, although “there has been much broader support for maintaining them,” as one official put it. But the Trust for the National Mall, which depends on private donors to fulfill its mission, is getting out in front of the uproar.  

“In the coming weeks and months, the physical symbols of American history and democracy will be scrutinized and challenged,” Catherine Townsend, president of the Trust for the National Mall, wrote in a letter to supporters. “When that happens, we will work with our partners to ensure the National Mall continues to be a vibrant and relevant place where Americans can learn about our history and imagine our future, together.”

In practice, that means that visitors to “America’s Front Yard” will see the Founding Fathers honored, but there will be a new emphasis on their personal records as slave-owners. The changes might first be apparent at the Jefferson Memorial; the Trust, even before the renewed debate over Confederate statues, has been planning to raise money to refurbish the National Park Service exhibit accompanying the memorial, which has deteriorated since its installment about 20 years ago.

“We can reflect the momentous contributions of someone like Thomas Jefferson, but also consider carefully the complexity of who he was,” an official with the Trust told the Washington Examiner. “And that’s not reflected right now in the exhibits.”

The Trust has the ability to wield significant influence over the new exhibits, because they provide crucial private funding for the National Mall. The National Park Service faces an $11.49 billion deficit for repairing and maintaining the parks, including an $852 million shortfall for the Mall alone. The Trust works to fill that gap by coordinating fundraising drives from “patriotic philanthropists” and that support projects identified by the NPS as a top priority.

“The Park Service manages the site, and we’ll always be clear on that — but if we are a partner in help bringing private funding to make sure that they’re able to update that exhibit, that’s where we want to be thoughtful vis a vis what has happened, or, sort of, come to an inflection point in the last week,” the official told the Washington Examiner. “That is where we’ll be their partner in bringing together thought leaders and scholars to make sure that that content is really appropriate and thorough for what should be at that particular site.”

Students of American history have long seen in Jefferson a two-toned image of the American founding. Most famously, he authored the Declaration of Independence. Confederate leaders faulted him for regarding slavery as an “evil” institution.

“The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old [United States] constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically,” Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, said in his infamous “cornerstone” speech shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. “It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time.”

And yet, Jefferson owned slaves himself; he was criticized even within his lifetime for making a “concubine” of one of them, a woman named Sally Hemings. “[The Thomas Jefferson Foundation] and most historians believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson’s records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings,” the foundation recalls.

That story might not receive a full airing on the Mall, even after the update. “There are somethings that are better represented and better explained at Monticello,” the official said. “The Jefferson Memorial does not necessarily need to be an all-inclusive site and encapsulate all of that detail.”

But the Trust will try to strike a balance between patriotic applause and the legacy of slavery, particularly as they initiate private fundraising drives at a time of rarely-intense criticism of the founders.

“Recent events only reinforce the need for an open, inclusive and safe space for Americans to exercise their First Amendment rights and to gather in pursuit of our shared ideals — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all,” Townsend wrote in her message Thursday. “I hope you will join us as we steward private support to implement modern and resilient solutions that can transform this dynamic space and preserve the historic legacy of the National Mall. We want to hear from you, and we want to work with you.”


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