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

Part 2 of the Oral History post describes the kinds of impacts that oral history research can have, regardless of the circumstances of the family whose history is being woven together. The Getting Word project’s impacts and aftermaths are an interesting story, and I hope they give you ideas for what your research might inspire in your family and what else, beyond history, you might be able to create.

Part 3 of this blog series will come out next week.

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 2 – Getting Word: Impact and Aftermath

Conducting oral history research in any family, grand or modest, has the power to create change, to be disruptive, and to have lasting effects. The impacts may be low key and positive, or they may stir up old feelings of fear, anger, sadness, estrangement or confusion. There is the chance that new and surprising information or connections will be uncovered. Family research is never “just” family research.

An oral history project is probably not going to end when the researcher thinks it will. Collecting stories and hunting up documents often leads to more of the same. Most oral historians have some end product in mind, whether that be a book, a database, a movie, or an exhibit, and that end product is likely to be read, shown to or shared with the people whose stories it contains.

But the research experience and the final product take on lives of their own, an aftermath that the researcher may not have anticipated. The experience of telling stories and looking at documents inspires the people who participate to ask more questions, share more information, and want to connect with other members of the family or community. Gatherings and reunions take place; Facebook groups spring up. Sometimes the family spirit is revitalized, and relatives want to travel together and return to their ancestors’ home places. People other than the researcher are moved to blog, tweet, Instagram, video, scrapbook, and write fiction or non-fiction. News stories get written. Family members offer or are asked to speak to the historical society, the church, the youth group, the school or college. Sometimes an outstanding family member is honored or the research project itself is recognized. Sometimes the oral history becomes an impetus to preserve an old home place or restore an abandoned cemetery.

The impact and aftermath of Getting Word may prepare you for what could come out of your work – undoubtedly results more exciting and broad reaching than you expect. 

Impact of Getting Word – Validated & Respected: The initial impact of launching the oral history research was a sense of excitement among the descendants. A Fossett family member was overcome with tears of gratitude to have his family stories finally be believed. Over the years of the project, the experience of having carefully held family histories be affirmed and valued, listened to and recorded, taken seriously by scholars and an important American institution continued to be deeply meaningful to individuals, to their immediate families, and to the Getting Word descendant community.

Research Causes More Research: Another impact of the initial phases of the project was to encourage additional descendants to be interviewed or to be motivated to do their own family research beyond the scope of the project. A woman who was not interviewed by Getting Word but knew of the project started following up on a family story of being descended from “a Jefferson.” As her research continued, Monticello gave her research support, and she was able to find the links between her mother’s family and one of Jefferson’s grandchildren. Persisting, she is now figuring out how she is descended from a Hemings brother.

The TJF website reports that Getting Word led to the “discovery of almost ten previously unknown surnames of enslaved families at Monticello. This has led both to finding descendants and to helping combat the stereotype of “nameless” slaves who took their owners’ surnames after the Civil War.” The project uncovered a fourth individual’s memories of life as a slave at Monticello in the form of a long interview given by Peter Fossett to the New York World in 1898. It also discovered that “one of only a dozen surviving sound recordings of former slaves is an interview with a descendant of Monticello slaves: Fountain Hughes.” Appropriately, part of the end product of Getting Word is a digital collection of over 200 photographs of descendants from the nineteenth century to the present.

Re-Connection and Community: A Getting Word community formed. It started with a gathering at Monticello in 1997 of people interviewed for Getting Word. That event brought together people who had lost touch with or never known one another. Groups of descendants discovered that each line had been telling the same oral history of how they were related. People from different Monticello families whose ancestors had moved to southern Ohio unbeknownst to one another, were rejoined as a community.

Richer, More Truthful Interpretation: Of course the oral history project also achieved its original purpose of informing the interpretation of the historic site. Monticello’s interpretive strategy now weaves together the daily lives, activities, skills and accomplishments of the enslaved people and the slaveholders. Just as the “historically significant” European American family members are mentioned by name, now the names, roles, and personalities of the equally important but less known enslaved individuals are part of the tour guides’ stories.

Aftermaths – Ongoing Gatherings & Engagement with the Work of the TJF: Getting Word has gone well beyond its original reason for existing. When white Jefferson descendants proposed to Monticello that they would hold an all-inclusive gathering for everyone descended from the plantation community, the Getting Word community already existed, ready to be invited. And they came, 200-strong, to a weekend reunion in 2007.

In 2012, Monticello collaborated with the just-forming National Museum for African American History and Culture and the larger Smithsonian organization to put on an exhibit called “Jefferson and Slavery: Paradox of Liberty.” At the entrance to the exhibit was a large wall covered with the names of people enslaved on Jefferson’s properties. Artifacts loaned by descendants of those people were on display, with the lenders named and acknowledged. Stories gathered during the Getting Word research appeared in print or on video, and the narrators’ family trees were on display. The Getting Word community was invited to attend the opening. Some of the descendants became informal spokespeople for the exhibit.

Two years later, after consultation with Getting Word descendants, Monticello prepared for an enormous renovation and restoration project that would start rebuilding the places in which the ancestors of the Getting Word people lived and worked. Descendants of the enslaved workers were asked to “voice” the audio tour guides to the new structures.

A year later, in May 2015, the restorations on Mulberry Row were opened, with a large number of Getting Word descendants present. They were applauded by the public, feted at a dinner and a champagne tea, and let down their hair together in the evening at a local hotel.

Later that summer, a smaller group of Getting Word descendants came back to Monticello to sleep in those restored buildings, for a Slave Dwelling Project overnight. More of them joined the sleepover in 2016. They danced on Jefferson’s lawn to African drumming, discussed their ancestors’ lives by the light of a bonfire at the edge of Mulberry Row, touched the fingerprints in the bricks of the mansion’s wall, put flowers on the graves of unidentified African American enslaved people, sang hymns, and held one another close.

Tips for Impact and Aftermath

  • Recognize that you are taking on the role of “griot,” which may give you standing and powers you hadn’t expected. Step up, with support and wisdom from others.
  • Your research will have an impact.
  • Create an end product and share it with everyone who participated.
  • Be in an ongoing dialogue with your interviewees about the impact of your work and the follow up they want.
  • Enlist others to carry out their follow up plans. Do not feel you must be in charge of whatever a new or revived family community may want to do next.
  • Talk about your work, share your sources, and make your family research publically available.

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

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