Thomas Jefferson is canceled (or at least a Detroit group thinks an exhibition about the slave-owner should be)

Protesters outside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Protesters outside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Jerilyn Jordan

On Friday, dozens of protesters braved the cold to gather outside of Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in protest of the traveling exhibition Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, which opened to the public that day.

Chanting "Jefferson was a racist, Jefferson was a pedophile," the protesters held signs that said "Jefferson ain't Wright" and "Don't do Wright wrong."

"He raped that slave girl and came out with a Constitution about equality and all that stuff — but not for blacks," said protester Helen Moore, who admits that she has not seen the exhibition and has no plans to.

"I don't care what they say in there, this does not belong in Detroit," she said.

The exhibition covers Jefferson's Virginia home and plantation, Monticello, with a central focus on the more than 600 African-American slaves the Founding Father owned. That includes the story of Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Jefferson had a long-term sexual affair and who gave birth to five of his children, starting when she was just 16. While accompanying Jefferson on a trip abroad in Paris, where she was legally free, Hemings negotiated a "treaty" with Jefferson in which she would return to slavery in Virginia in exchange for the emancipation of her children.

Ahead of the opening, Charles H. Wright Museum CEO Neil A. Barclay, who assumed the role earlier this year, penned an essay in the Detroit Free Press in defense of the exhibition, which was initially planned under Barclay's predecessor and created in conjunction with the Smithsonian National Museum.

"You might be surprised to learn that I don't think the controversy about our exhibition Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty is necessarily a bad thing," Barclay writes. "In fact, an effective history exhibition is meant to be debated, and we at the Wright believe it is our job to facilitate the dialogue, not to facilitate or force agreement."

In the essay, Barclay says the exhibition puts "the lives of six enslaved families who lived at Monticello at the center of the narrative, presenting them as fully-realized humans who navigated slavery's pain, loss, and unspeakable oppression with resilience and faith, and not just as plot devices for a story about Jefferson."

"Our insistence that the lens through which the story is told was shifted to the perspective of enslaved families is the most exciting — and to date unique — aspect of the Wright's presentation of the exhibition," Barclay writes, adding the museum will welcome further community engagement by hosting programming including lectures and workshops.

Indeed, the exhibition directly confronts the glaring hypocrisy of Jefferson owning slaves while he argued that "all men are created equal," including within its very first blocks of explanatory text.

"The paradox of the American Revolution — the fight for liberty in an era of pervasive slavery — is one of the most troubling aspects of American history," signage at the begining of the exhibition says. "Jefferson and other founders who opposed slavery did not insist on abolishing it. It took 87 more years — and the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment — to end slavery."

While the exhibition's critics might object to the bronze full-size statue of Jefferson literally presented on a pedestal, which serves as the exhibition's centerpiece, it is done so against a backdrop of the names of all of Jefferson's known slaves — to striking effect. Much of the exhibition is dedicated to Hemings, about which little was written in her own time.

"This exhibit is to restore the humanity of the people who lived in Monticello and tell the stories that are often left out of our national narrative," Delisha Upshaw, the Wright's senior director of marketing and public relations, previously told Metro Times. "We want to inspire a conversation about the negative effects of slavery and racism that persist today, and you'd have to be blind not to see that they still are here today."

"It's messy and painful, but that's the story of America," Upshaw added.

On that point, Moore is in agreement, which is why she says she is protesting the exhibition. "I'm just proud that we can stand up today because they couldn't stand up back then," she says. "So that's what we're doing: standing up today for the people that were enslaved back then."

Created in 2012, the exhibition has visited the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the Atlanta History Center, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and the African American Museum in Dallas.

In a 2013 promotional video, descendants of Hemings and Jefferson say they were moved by the exhibition. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, we don't want to talk about or think about slavery,' but we can never get through the process of healing until we can look at it, understand it, and embrace it," Shannon Lanier says in the video. "Even if it is painful, you have to go through the pain to get to the healing side, and this is just one way that we can start that."

The Charles H. Wright Museum is located at 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-494-5800; Tickets are $10. The exhibition runs through June 22.

Will Feuer and Jerilyn Jordan contributed to this report.

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Lee DeVito

Leyland “Lee” DeVito is the editor in chief of Detroit Metro Times since 2016. His writing has also been published in CREEM, VICE, In These Times, and New City. He once asked porn star Stormy Daniels to spank him with an issue of Metro Times. She obliged.

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