The Rev. Peter Fossett was born to Joseph and Edith Fossett. As an adult, his family lived in Cincinatti, Ohio, where Peter was, first, a well-known and respected caterer. He eventually left that profession and was ordained a Baptist minister, organizing the First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, a suburb of Cincinatti. He served that church faithfully and well for thirty years, and became a respected leader in his community. After his death, fifteen hundred people (both black and white) attended his funeral.
Peter Fossett was born into slavery on the Monticello plantation of Thomas Jefferson.
His parents were two of the most influential of the enslaved persons living on the mountain. Joseph was the head blacksmith; Edith was the head cook. As a child, Peter lived a life of relative ease. He later recalled, "I knew nothing of the horrors of slavery till our good master died, on July 4, 1826." Upon Jefferson's death, the vast majority of those who'd been enslaved were sold at auction to pay off debts. This included eleven year old Peter.
His father, Joseph, was given his freedom in Jefferson's will. Peter's mother and six of his brothers and sisters, on the other hand, were sold. Despite Jefferson's stated desire during his lifetime that families remain together, this family -- and many others -- were broken up during this mass sale. It took twenty three years for Peter to be reunited with his family.
During the time of his enslavement after Jefferson's death he secretly pursued his education, despite his master's declaration that he'd get a whipping if he was ever seen with a book. Peter didn't keep his desire to learn entirely to himself, however. He remembered, "All the time I was teaching all the people around me to read and write."
When his father, with the help help of family and neighbors both black and white, was able to secure Peter's freedom, Peter moved to Ohio where his family had resettled. Begining as a whitewasher and waiter he and his brother William evetually started their own catering business, which was hugely successful. Peter served on the board of directors of the segregated school board and belonged to both the National Prison Reform Congress and the University Extension Society. It is also know that he was active in the Underground Railroad.
I'm currently reading the book Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello by Lucia Stanton. It's powerful, painful stuff. The Rev. Peter Fossett's story is just one story of the over six hundred women, men, and children who lived lives of enslavement as the "property" of the man who wrote the words, "All men are created equal." (You can read more about Peter Fossett in the pages of the web site for the magnificent project -- Getting Word: African Americans at Monticello.)
As a European American man, and now especially as the Lead Minister of a congregation in Charlottesville, VA built as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson, I find these stories weighing on me. I walked into our lovely building today and can just barely keep myself from crying. Especially after just recently being reminded by the movie The Help how little things really changed even after emancipation. And the current immigration situation reminds me how much the same things still are.
The monthly theme for October here at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church is Atonement, so I find myself asking the question: What can I do, what can we do, to atone for our part in this history? I'll be exploring this in the service on October 16th. In the meantime, though, I'm sitting with this. I thought I'd invite you to sit with it, too.
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