One morning a week or so ago I came to work and really noticed the front of our building – the way it echoes the Rotunda at UVA – and I was struck how, from the outside at least, this place really looks like a “Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church.”
And then I came inside, and into that marvelous foyer, with those inspiring quotes from Jefferson’s writings:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or his goods, or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs . . .
I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. . .
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .
And then there was the bust of the man himself – further reminders of the legacy to which we can lay claim.
Then I came into the sanctuary and took a seat in that pew right there. I soaked in this inspiring edifice, painted in such clean and crisp white and Jeffersonian blue. I sat here by myself that morning, and I began to cry.
Before coming to work that day I’d been reading the story of a little boy named Peter. He’d grown up around here living what he later remembered was a pretty idyllic life. His father was a well-respected artisan; his mother a classically trained French chef. Peter, himself, would eventually grow up to be a tremendously successful caterer, community leader and, eventually, an ordained minister.
Yet at the time of his childhood all three – mother Edith, father Joseph, and young Peter – were all the property of this same Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s understanding of the way things were was that he owned these people. They were his slaves. And although Peter remembered his childhood as idyllic – he said that he had no idea that he and his family were slaves – everything changed on July 4, 1826 with Jefferson’s death. Joseph was one of the five enslaved persons who were freed in Jefferson’s will. But Edith, Peter (then only eleven years old), and six of his brothers and sisters were put on the auction block along with 130 other human beings and sold to help pay off Jefferson’s debt. It took Peter twenty-three years to reunite with his family.
I’ve been reading two books for the past several weeks, both by Lucia Stanton. One is called Slavery at Monticello and the other, Free Some Day: TheAfrican-American Families of Monticello. I’ve been immersing myself in this time and these stories. Now, let me be clear – I’ve done a lot of anti-racism work; I know me some history. I’m not new to the story of slavery in the south. But that’s maybe the key thing, and one I hadn’t really been conscious of. As a Northerner, it was the story of slavery-in-the-south. Now, even though I know it’ll be several generations before y’all accept me as one of your own, I’ve already begun to see myself as a Southerner. So this is now my story. And it didn’t happen far, far away; it happened just down the road. At the home of the man for whom our church is named. What could I do but weep?
How do you wrap your mind around it? This man who wrote that “all men are created equal” owned over 600 men, women, and children during the course of his lifetime. He was, in fact, the second largest slave holder in Virginia in his day. And though he strove to keep black families together – the record showed that he was opposed to selling a husband without his wife and children (and vice versa) – it is also a fact that when a child attained working age – about ten or twelve – she or he was no longer considered a child and, so, no longer entitled to that kind of familial protection. Even more jarring, despite this noble sentiment, Jefferson did break up families whenever economic realities appeared to necessitate it. There was always a disconnect between the ideal and the real.
As Lucia Stanton puts it:
“To protect himself from the realities of owning human beings, he needed the same psychological buffers as other well-intentioned slaveholders. The constant tension between self-interest and humanity seems to have induced in him a gradual closing of the imagination that distanced and dehumanized the black families of Monticello.” (Slavery, p. 33)
If the mind boggles at a reality in which a white boy could be raised with a black boy as his friend and constant companion, as Jefferson was, only to then consider that boy his property once the two reached the age of eighteen; if it’s incomprehensible that a person could “come out among [us], play the fiddle and dance half the night”, as Jefferson’s brother Randolph is known to have done, and then see that “us” as no different than the mules and the plows the next morning; if these contradictions are unfathomable to us perhaps, suggests Annette Gordon-Reed, it has something to do with most of us in this room being white.
Gordon-Reed is an associate professor of law at New York Law School and is the author of the book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy. She wrote a truly fascinating article for the website that compliments the PBS Frontline program about Jefferson and Hemmings. In it, she said this:
“The contradictions that make Jefferson seem problematic and frustrating – a figure of mystery to some whites, make him more accessible to blacks, who find his conflicted nature a perfect reflection of the America they know: a place where high-minded ideals clash with the reality of racial ambivalence. As this combination daily informs black lives, Jefferson could seem no more bizarre than America itself. He is utterly predictable and familiar – the foremost exemplar of the true American spirit and psyche.”
What are we to do with this? What are we – an overwhelmingly white congregation that would like to become more truly diverse with regards to race, and ethnicity, and class; a congregation that occupies the highest point in Charlottesville, Virginia, a stone’s throw from Monticello – what are we to do with this?
I know that, in recent years, there has been here, as there has been at the District level, a conversation – or, perhaps, more accurately a collection of conversations – about addressing these contradictions by changing our name. If, in the 1950s, the American Unitarian Association saw Thomas Jefferson as an exemplar of all things right and good in liberal America and thought it proper to build a Memorial Church in Charlottesville, then now, in 2011, we know that the truth is much more complicated. And perhaps we think that continuing to align ourselves with this slaveholder who truly believed that blacks were inferior and “made to carry burdens,” makes us complicit. I know that this is a simplification, but this is a large part of the reason that there is now no longer a Thomas Jefferson District in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our District voted just this year to change its name to the Southeast District – a name less burdened with the baggage of the past.
Our theme this month is atonement, and up until now we’ve been talking about this at a personal level: how do I (how do you) as an individual atone for those things we’ve done in our past that have caused there to be brokenness in our relationships – with ourselves, with others, and with that deeper truth in Life. But can we also atone for “the sins of the fathers”? Can we? Should we?
My thinking in this has been greatly influenced by the story of the Rev. David Pettee, my friend and colleague who occupied the office next to mine when I started at UUHQ in Boston. Dave has long been interested in genealogy, but he never expected to discover as he researched his family line that his ancestors included slave holders and slave traders. It was, as you might imagine, something that was never talked about at family reunions.
But David heeded the encouragement of those who suggested that it would not be enough for him to simply uncover his own family’s role in perpetuating the institution of slavery; he needed to find a way to atone. (That might not be the language that Dave, himself, would use, but as we’ve been discussing it the past couple of Sundays I can’t think of a better way to describe what he’s been doing.) David began focusing his research, as best he could, on uncovering the genealogy of those enslaved persons who’d been owned by his ancestors. And despite the paucity of records, he was able to find a line, a line that led directly to the widow of a great-great-great grandson of a man one of his ancestors had once held in bondage.
David reached out to her and to her family. And in doing so he became part of a movement – spearheaded by the project Coming to the Table, which has successfully gathered the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slaveholders for dialogue. David’s working on a book now about these experiences, one which has involved interviewing a hundred whites and blacks who’ve taken this step. He writes:
[T]ruth-telling and repentance can be an antidote to the abuse of power that was institutionalized in the practice of slavery. The elements of our history that are shameful and horrific must be named and remembered. We must be willing to believe that there is a way out of the cycle of despair and hopelessness that lies at the core of this brokenness. Without the commitment to remember and be held accountable for all of our history, the apocalyptic conditions that allow for the dehumanization and genocide of other people will continue to emerge. As the philosopher and poet George Santayana reminds us, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (“The Ties That Bind”)
In part inspired by this phenomenal movement, and despite the decision of our District (which I happen to support), I find myself wondering whether our changing our name would not be a mistake. After all, in this day and age, with the quality of political discourse being what it is, it would be good for someone to be a champion of Jefferson’s ideals of freedom. His voice, his vision, would be a welcome reminder of the principles upon which this nation was founded – no matter how they have been forgotten and glossed over in the intervening years. And as to the contradictions in the man? I can’t help but wonder if changing our name wouldn’t be “the easy way out,” allowing us to “put all that behind us.”
But “all that” isn’t easily put behind us, and I can’t help but feel that tremendous good could be done by even more fully embracing our connection to Jefferson and that, on his behalf and as his namesake, we might have a role to play in the work of atonement and reconciliation that is so desperately needed.
And that’s already going on. There is the Dialog onRace, which members of our congregation have been tremendously involved with yet with which we, as a congregation, could be doing so much more.
There’s the possibility of partnering with UVA in its University and Community Action for Racial Equity(UCARE) initiatives, that are “dedicated to helping the University of Virginia and the Charlottesville communities work together to understand the University role in slavery, racial segregation, and discrimination and to find ways to address and repair that legacy, particularly as they relate to present day disparities.”
And as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello collaborates with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History to more fully explore what they’re calling “Jefferson and Slavery: the paradox of freedom,” I can’t help but think that the only religious community in Charlottesville to bear Jefferson’s name might have some role to play.
At the very least, couldn’t we reach out to more of the African American churches in the area to develop real, ongoing relationships? And couldn’t we add to our collection of Jeffersonian memorabilia photos (like the haunting image of Isaac Jefferson that’s on our Order of Service) and other information about the enslaved members of Jefferson’s “family” (as he called them)? Might we not have a justifiable role to play in reaching out to the descendants of all those who lived in Monticello?
While talking with Dave about all of this he offered to introduce me to Prinny Anderson, a 4th generation granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, (and Unitarian Universalist in Durham, NC). Prinny has made connections with the 4th generation descendants of Sally Hemmings as part of her involvement with Come to the Table.
[T]here is much good in what Jefferson wrote and said. [. . .] I am inordinately proud of his stand for liberty and equality. In getting to know and love my Hemings cousins, I have also had to accept that he was very much a man of his time, *including* his support for freedom. But he was a white patriarchal slave-owning plantation owner who held his wife, minor children, adult unmarried daughters, enslaved people, farm lands, and farm animals - ALL as chattel - as one did in his time. He *loved* all of them, but he also *owned* all of them. Every man did in that time, so throwing him out as an unacceptable role model means throwing out most of our Revolutionary heroes.
Keeping the Jefferson name also opens a door to becoming vastly better informed about our ancestors and their world, becoming much clearer about the real story - all the details included - of where we come from. That insight in turn makes us much better able to really see, hear, and feel the legacies, good and bad, of the past at play in the present, allowing us to make really substantive, systemic changes for the better, for the future. Just throwing the hero out with yesterday's paper means we forge ahead, still ignorant, without confronting the demons and ghosts of the past, and blind to how they affect us now.
This is a huge trap for UUs, in my limited experience. Many whom I've encountered are of good hearts and good intentions, but somewhat superficial. There is a lack of rooted connection to tough issues, lack of a sense of direct ownership and involvement with the system, with the "bad" stuff. Without that sense of being connected to the "perpetrator" as well as to the "victim," it is hard to make sustainable change at any level, individual, community, nation or globe.”
Could this be part of our mission, our purpose, our work in the world? Would it be scary? Sure. Will it be hard? Absolutely. But as my friend David has written,
“In my introspection prior to [my first] visit, I worried that I might represent a target for long pent-up anger and resentment. Even though Patricia had gracefully welcomed my interest in visiting her, I kept struggling with the false but deeply-held conviction that open conversation about slavery and white privilege with people of color was a dangerous threshold that should never be crossed. I knew I needed to find a way to break through the force field that perpetuated my unnecessary segregation from people of color.” (“The Ties That Bind.”)I believe that we do, too. As individuals. As a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia in the year 2011. And, perhaps, most especially, as a church that was built in memorial to a man who embodied these contradictions that so desperately need to be addressed.
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