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Charting the Transformation of Monticello and Public History

The passing of Daniel P. Jordan, the long-time head of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and runs Monticello, is a good opportunity to reflect on the changes that have come to Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home and plantation, as well as the field of public history at large.

Jane Kamensky, the current  president of the foundation, called Jordan  “the most consequential president on the Mountaintop since Jefferson himself.”

Jordan received his PhD in history from the University of Virginia in 1970 and joined the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1985. It was under his leadership that UVA and Monticello received UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1987 as sites of “outstanding universal value” to humanity. Monticello remains the only presidential home to receive this designation. 

Despite the acclaim heaped on Jefferson’s architectural talents and his drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Jordan later said that the watershed moment for him was when he joined a public tour of Monticello and realized that there was no mention of slavery or the fact that it was a plantation that functioned using enslaved labor. He supported a new generation of scholarship, including the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and the Jefferson Library, and tours that centered slavery and the lives of those enslaved at Monticello, helping to transform the field of public history into telling more complete stories grounded in rigorous research. 

The biggest test of his commitment to this rigorous history came with the publication of Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1998) and subsequent DNA testing that confirmed what the Hemings family had long held—that Jefferson was almost certainly the father of Sally Hemings’s six children. 

Jordan convened a press conference at which he said, “The foundation has long believed that you cannot understand Thomas Jefferson without understanding slavery. And that you cannot understand Monticello without understanding its African American community.”

In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, to the dismay of some, concluded that Jefferson was “most likely” the father of the Hemings children. That began a spate of work that included rebuilding slave cabins and workshops, inaugurating a Hemings family tour, and inviting descendants of Monticello’s enslaved community to reunions. In 2018, Monticello opened an exhibit dedicated to Sally Hemings that treated Jefferson’s paternity of her children as fact and highlighted the troubling questions of “Sex, Power and Ownership” that continue to swirl about the mountaintop. 

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