Go Tell it on Monticello: New Directions in “Telling the History of Slavery”

Planning was in the works for over a year for the upcoming mega-conference at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, “Telling the History of Slavery: Scholarship, Museum Interpretation, and the Public,” but it may benefit from the more recent public controversies over Jefferson’s character as a slaveholder, produced in part by the dust-up over Henry Wiencek’s book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. This past fall, Master was at the center of a media storm when a number of scholars in the field responded critically to an article in Smithsonian Magazine in which the author claimed to have developed new interpretations of Jeffersonian documents that threw doubt on the current interpretations of Jefferson as a slaveholder.

The event’s planners will bring together academics and public historians to discuss the “recent innovations in slavery research and its impact on both scholarship and public interpretation of slavery,” a broad program that will host speakers from archeology, history, the digital humanities, museums, and historic sites. Conference sessions entitled “The Consumption of Slavery Research—Who Decides” and “Re-interpreting Slavery: New Scholarly Approaches” seemed ideally suited to more productively build on the issues of reception and interpretation that have been part of the dialogue around Master of the Mountain.

The conference, which runs from February 22–23 and is sponsored by Monticello and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, among others, is bringing in a cohort of heavy-hitters from the world of academia, public, and digital scholarship, including Annette Gordon-Reed and Lucia Stanton, who were front and center for the recent public conflagration over Master of the Mountain. For his part, Wiencek, who lives in the Charlottesville area and has stated that he would like to meet Gordon-Reed in an open forum (she declined), has the opportunity to engage his former colleagues at Monticello in a more collegial manner when the conference gets underway in February. Regardless of whether or not that outcome is likely, conference participants will have an opportunity to engage some of the most innovative historians in the field on the rapidly evolving sphere of slavery and public history.

What kinds of questions would you like to see asked or answered at the “Telling the History of Slavery” conference in February? Let us know in the comments section below.

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