“It was built by the same man that built Monticello,” Dad told the group yesterday over lunch.
Something about that sentence sat uneasy with me. A few minutes later, when I said something similar – “He built the courthouse in Palmyra” – I figured out my discomfort.
These men didn’t BUILD anything. They DESIGNED buildings that slaves built. This distinction seems important.
I have toured many, many historical homes – Mount Vernon, Tryon Palace, Montpelier – and unless I directly ask, the docents almost never mention the slaves who were such an integral part of the construction and daily life in these homes. That, too, makes me uneasy.
Our turns of phrase have ellided these people from the very history that people find so fascinating. Even though I spend hours and hours a day thinking about the people enslaved here and reading about them and putting together the fragments of their stories, I still left them out of their own history. I’m angry at myself for that.
The reasons many Americans don’t discuss this element of our history are vastly complex and deeply in-grained. To a certain extent, we are simply perpetuating the system of slavery itself, where masters would claim work as their own – harvests and buildings, in particular – when they had not planted a seed or fired a brick themselves. There is also something to be said for the fact that, because of this system, records about slaves are difficult to come by. We are also, I think, expressing our much-warranted embarrassment and chagrin over being a part of such vile system. Too, it seems we are simply trying to forget and ignore the roughly 200 years where people were owned as property.
I can understand all of these reasons. Certainly, I – consciously and unconciously – hold some of them as my own. But I don’t tacitly accept them. To pretend – out of shame or willful ignorance – that the gorgeous plantation houses of the South (and some in the North) were built by great men, is to erase the story and the work of thousands upon thousands of people who had no choice but to build and become a central piece of our history.
To pretend that the foundation of much of our country’s wealth and success was not set in place by men and women who sometimes could not leave the sight of the very buildings they were required to build, is to lie to ourselves. We need to look at Monticello, at Montpelier, at Mount Vernon, and at these farms where I live and say, “This building was constructed by Charles, Anthony, Bob, William, Henry, Phil, Frank, and Cato, men who had no choice but still produced beauty and majesty anyway.”
– Monticello, owned by Thomas Jefferson