Gathering African American Families’ Oral Histories – The Getting Word Project: African American Stories from Monticello – Part One of Three

So many of us want to know our ancestors’ stories and find out more about where we’ve come from. DNA research has advanced our ability to find and learn about our family members to an extraordinary extent, but family stories are still a basic piece of the work. Because of my involvement in several projects associated with the enslaved and slave owning families of Monticello, I have known about the Getting Word oral history project for many years. I’ve also been able to see the all the ways that project has lasted on and extended beyond just being an oral history project.

I am fortunate to know the three historians who initiated and conducted most of the work of Getting Word, and I realized what a significant resource they are to other oral historians, especially those who might be in the early stages of interviewing family members. The three women, Ms. Gray, Ms. Stanton, and Dr. Swann-Wright, graciously agreed to give me their oral histories of working on Getting Word, and included advice and guidance for others doing the same work.

The blog post will be in three parts, over three weeks.

Part 1 – The Story of the Getting Word Oral History Project

Part 2 – The Impact and Aftermath of the Getting Word Oral History Project

Part 3 – The Researchers and Their Advice for Oral Historians

Part 1 – The Story of the Getting Word Oral History Project

Introduction: There’s an old saying along the lines of “if you want to know who you are, you have to know who your people are and where you come from.” Collecting family members’ oral histories – the stories they carry in their memories, the stories passed down to them from their ancestors – is foundation building.  Those stories make up a mosaic picture that can reveal the ties that held the people together and the tensions that sometimes pulled them apart.

Collections of the oral histories of enslaved people, plantation communities, and slaveholding regions of the country are not new. The WPA Federal Writers’ Project is one of the largest examples of an oral history collection with a focus on slavery. The University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South is another large-scale project, which takes in a whole region, and Pass the Word is a state-level project based at the University of Kentucky. Other oral history work has revolved around individual plantations, such as the Esmont Oral History Project in Virginia, and the Tall Timbers narrative and photographic project from Georgia.  One of the best known oral history studies intended to preserve the stories of the enslaved community and bring together their descendants is known as “Somerset Homecoming” This study was conducted in a similar time period to the Getting Word project, and its lead researcher, Dorothy Spruill Redford, influenced the approach used by the Getting Word team.

The Getting Word Oral History Project: By sharing the story of the Getting Word project, we hope to give you encouragement to do your own story collecting, to give you tips and advice from three professional oral historians, and show you some of the ways an oral history project can grow well beyond its original research mission.

Getting Word is a long-term project carried out by researchers from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF), the owners of Monticello, to discover, collect and preserve the histories of the enslaved African American families of Jefferson’s plantations.  In 1993, as the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth was being celebrated, Dr. Daniel Jordan, the President of the TJF, was urging his staff to develop new programs and take the site’s interpretation in new directions. One area that many agreed had not been given adequate attention was slavery and the African American life experiences of the plantation’s people.

The site was offering Plantation Community Tours, going beyond the architecture and decorative arts within the walls of the mansion, and holding Plantation Community weekends during which re-enactors demonstrated cooking, nail making, woodworking and other crafts and household activities known to have been practiced at Monticello in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For their demonstrations and the accompanying interpretation, the re-enactors needed more complete stories to work from and much more information about the identities, talents, personalities and histories of the enslaved people whose work they were highlighting.

Lucia (Cinder) Stanton was the Director of Research at that time (later Shannon Senior Historian) at Monticello, with a passion for the stories, activities and characters that bring life to the plantation’s history. She had been inspired by the Dorothy Spruill Redford’s research already under way. Stanton promptly brought on an experienced African American oral historian, Dianne Swann-Wright, to co-lead the project.

Inspired by Dr. Swann-Wright’s imagination, the two researchers decided to call the project “Getting Word.” It was obvious – they would be getting words from people. But they also needed the word to get out to descendants and others that their stories were valuable and important, and they hoped descendants would also “get word” back to them.

From the outset, Stanton and Swann-Wright knew they needed to start their work in southern Ohio, in the vicinity of Chillicothe, and they knew the historian who could help them make the right connections, find documents, and understand the historical context – Beverly Gray. For years, Gray had been researching the histories of African American families of the area, including many who had migrated from Monticello and Albemarle County, Virginia.

The research methodology was informed by the work of the noted anthropologists, Nancy and Charles Perdue. The plan was that, as the professional oral historian, Swann-Wright, who is African American, would take the lead on conducting interviews. Stanton, a European American and an experienced researcher, thought her role would be to focus on the documents. They intended to divide up the work of interviewing and documentary research on each story collection trip. But very quickly, they discovered they needed to adapt: Dianne did always take the lead, but the two women did every interview together. Dianne paid attention to the questions and answers, and the flow of the interview, and Cinder asked some questions, took notes and handled the interview recording.

The first research trip to Chillicothe, Ohio, started with a kick-off gathering of many Monticello descendants, notably those of Madison Hemings and Joseph Fossett. Beverly Gray set everything up – assembled the descendants, found the meeting space, and organized the evening. That meeting set the stage for numerous future interviews during that trip and thereafter. Swann-Wright and Stanton also started their campaign of visiting cemeteries, archives and the places in the vicinity of Chillicothe, Ohio, where people who came from Monticello had lived.

Traditional Sources: The Getting Word team followed two classic approaches for finding descendants and preserving their histories: oral interviews and documentary research. They considered both types of sources as equivalent forms of historical evidence, and both required the same considered assessment. Dianne and Cinder visited dusty courthouse cellars and church graveyards as well as descendants’ living rooms. A significant foundation of the research was information about life at Monticello derived from Jefferson’s voluminous archive, including over 19,000 letters and his Farm Book. This material contained the names of the people Jefferson owned, which of them had children, and other demographic data. Letters described where the enslaved people worked and who was given away as a gift. Wills and deeds of sale showed where enslaved people had come from and who had been sent on to other plantations. There were also a few letters from the enslaved people themselves, since a number of them could read and write.

Surprising Sources and Connections: As many family historians have found, unexpected connections come out of painstaking and intuitively inspired study of census documents, slave schedules, property records, tax lists, and birth, death and marriage records. For example, during the review of an 1850 census record, it became apparent that the brother of former Monticello butler, Burwell Colbert, had a different surname. He was the head gardener, Wormley Hughes.

Stanton and the Hughes descendants found one another at an Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society meeting in Washington, DC. At that time, the Hughes’ descendants knew only that their ancestor had come from Albemarle County, but had not known of their connection to Monticello. But the name from the census turned a light bulb for Stanton, who immediately got in touch with them. Soon thereafter, fourteen members of the family came to Monticello for the first time, to be interviewed. In another case, local marriage records revealed an unfamiliar surname, Hern. Wondering whether that name belonged to a Monticello enslaved family, Stanton searched in additional records and found another “new” family line.

Another surprising connection to the enslaved community came via letters to Monticello’s curators from Jefferson descendants in Alabama. In writing about Jefferson artifacts in their possession, the Bankhead family also mentioned members of the Scott family, descended from Jefferson’s first coachman, Jupiter. The Scott family had been working for the Bankhead family for over 150 years, ever since the days of slavery. Both the black Scotts and the white Bankheads still tell stories of life at Monticello.

As the “word” got out, descendants contacted the project and the quest gained a momentum of its own. Some descendants found the project as they proceeded with their independent family research. A descendant of Brown Colbert had no family history of a connection to Monticello, but his research took him from West Virginia to Lexington, VA, back to Monticello, and he reached out to Getting Word.

Surprising Discoveries, Unexpected Insights:  The oral historians discovered that some interviewees were initially reluctant to participate in interviews because they “didn’t know enough.” They thought the Getting Word team wanted to know what they had learned from reading, from “official” or “book learned” history. Once they understood that Swann-Wright and Stanton wanted to hear about what they had learned from their elders and about personal memories, the conversations flowed. Project participants were universally welcoming and cooperative.

At first, the oral historians were surprised that there were almost no stories of daily life at Monticello “back in the day.” Then they realized that while, after five to eight generations of time, details may have faded, core truths about individuals and families remained intact. What was still preserved in memory was what was most important to the families: stories about ancestors who had been indispensable to the Jefferson family, had demonstrated remarkable skills, had ensured their children learned to read and write and get further education, and had always striven for dignity and freedom. The oral history research took the project from slavery in the eighteenth century to civil rights leadership in the twentieth.

In spite of the years of experience among the research team members, their first encounter with Monticello descendants brought them a surprise and new learning. At the kick-off meeting, where about 40 descendants were expected, one of the first arrivals was a distinguished looking man that Beverly Gray, Dianne Swann-Wright and Cinder all assumed had come to the wrong room in the Historical Society building. He looked white, and they were expecting black people. When they told him the room he was in was for the Monticello descendants, Hemingses and Fossetts, he replied that he was a descendant. Subsequently, the Getting Word team learned that there are communities of fair-skinned African Americans in the region, people who have tended to marry others of lighter skin color, but who firmly identify as African American and whose oral histories contain incidences of discrimination, pain and sadness resulting from retaining that identity. In the same family lines are stories of relatives who passed into white society, to become either mysterious presences that occasionally showed up in their hometowns, or relatives who disappeared, lost for years or forever.

Conclusion: Since 1993, the research team has logged thousands of miles and met almost 200 people. One stage of the research culminated with a gathering of Getting Word families at Monticello in 1997, but the Project’s work continues in a variety of ways. Historians at Monticello keep on finding more information and connecting with more descendants of the site’s enslaved community.

Tips on the Research Process from Beverly, Cinder & Dianne:

  • Plan your methodology and then adapt as needed.
  • Find people who can share information with you, help you do research, network on your behalf, and educate you about local context.
  • Try to have two people involved in each interview, one focused on asking questions and the other focused on keeping notes.
  • Write notes and record interviews (with permission).
  • Hold an opening meeting or “kick-off” to get the word out about your project.
  • Find a way to publicize your research to inspire other people to go looking for more sources for you.
  • Expect to explain the project – what it is and why you’re collecting people’s memories – at every interview session, sometimes more than once per person you interview.
  • Explain the ground rules and what will happen with the stories you collect – confidentiality, access by sources, publication, follow up visits, and so on.
  • If you intend to publish the interviews or information from them in any form – print, online, audio or video – you must get release forms signed by every person interviewed.
  • Keep your word about access, confidentiality and privacy, and publication and do not promise anything you can’t carry through.
  • Bring family trees to the interviews, even if they are “first drafts” or partial, to focus the conversation and to engage interviewees in filling in information and stories.
  • Follow all the leads including ones from your “gut feelings,” and don’t prejudge who might have a clue to give you.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected and suspend preconceptions of what the stories “should” be about.
  • It is not the interviewer’s role to question the truth of any source’s story or of their details.

2 thoughts on “Gathering African American Families’ Oral Histories – The Getting Word Project: African American Stories from Monticello – Part One of Three”

  1. I can’t wait to read the next segments to this post. Thanks for sharing the news of Getting Word, including the lessons learned.

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