‘Messy and painful’ exhibit on Thomas Jefferson’s slave plantation elicits community backlash in Detroit

click to enlarge Attorney Jeffrey Edison and The Black Legacy Coalition meet to criticize the Charles H. Wright Museum's upcoming exhibit and demand community representation on the board of trustees - COURTESY OF THE BLACK LEGACY COALITION
Courtesy of the Black Legacy Coalition
Attorney Jeffrey Edison and The Black Legacy Coalition meet to criticize the Charles H. Wright Museum's upcoming exhibit and demand community representation on the board of trustees

The Black Legacy Coalition to preserve the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History spent this morning honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by way of protest.

The coalition met this morning at the St. Matthew and St. James church before the King Day rally to express opposition to the museum exhibition, Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, set to land in the Charles H. Wright Museum in March.

The exhibition uses Monticello — the home and plantation of slave-owner and founding father Thomas Jefferson — to explore the contradiction inherent in the ideals of our country’s founding and the institution of slavery. Though Jefferson often decried slavery, he owned over 600 African-American slaves, including Sally Hemings with whom Jefferson had a long-term sexual affair that resulted in five children. 

The coalition is demanding that the museum rescind plans to host the exhibit, as well as create room for community leaders on the museum’s board of trustees.

“We reject romantic notions of Jefferson’s holding hundreds of Africans in abject bondage and his sexual abuse of the teenaged Sally Hemings,” says Gloria House of the Black Legacy Coalition. “Clearly, the Museum needs community input to safeguard against such travesties in the future.”

The Charles H. Wright Museum, however, says it disagrees with the coalition's claims of insensitivity. The exhibit seeks to emphasize the perspective of the slaves who endured Monticello rather than that of Jefferson, the museum said in a statement. It added that the exhibit was created in conjunction with the Smithsonian National Museum and will spark a constructive conversation. 

“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, senior director of marketing and public relations for the Charles H. Wright Museum, tells 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 adds.

As for greater community representation, the museum says it agrees that the board should represent the community. However, it adds that there are many communities whose interests ought to be heard, not just those in the immediate vicinity of the museum.

“We agree that there should be community representation on the board. I think we disagree on who gets to decide what communities are represented,” says Upshaw. “When we look at community representation, we need to look all the community requests we’ve gotten.”

The demands come just weeks after the museum announced their new CEO Neil A. Barclay, the former CEO of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in New Orleans. He replaces Juanita Moore, who retired last June.

Some coalition members feel that Moore, who is credited with paving the way for the museum’s national prominence, was forced out.

“Ms. Moore put community interests above corporate interests and we demand that ethos continue,” says Tawana Petty of the Black Legacy Coalition. “Her programming was exemplary and recognized as such nationwide. We need that sort of commitment to continue. The goal of Charles H. Wright Museum is to up the legacy of African Americans for the world see and to serve the community. That can’t happen with a program that in any way mitigates the brutality of bondage.”

The museum, however, previously said that the Paradox of Liberty exhibit was planned under Moore’s leadership, according to the Free Press.

It was created in 2012 and has since visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the Atlanta History Center, the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It is now on display at the African American Museum in Dallas, Texas.

Will Feuer is an editorial intern for Metro Times.

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