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Thomas Jefferson Descendant Reflects On His Ancestor's Memorial And Legacy

Jul 15, 2020
Originally published on July 15, 2020 11:02 pm

A 19-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson stands beneath a dome in Washington, D.C., with his words carved on the walls around him. But the man known for writing much of the Declaration of Independence also infamously kept some-600 people enslaved in his mansion, Monticello. One of his many descendants has a few ideas for how his memorial might be altered to reflect his complex history.

"Why not make it a true freedom center since they want to give credit to Jefferson for writing those words," Shannon LaNier, the sixth great-grandson of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, told NPR's Morning Edition. "Leave the words on the wall, maybe remove the statue. Maybe surround his statue with other people that are symbols of freedom."

LaNier's suggestions come at time in which statues and monuments of historic figures with ties to slavery, colonialism and racism are being torn down, toppled and vandalized amid nationwide protests for racial justice.

"I think you have to have an opportunity to educate people," LaNier said. "We can't just look at history as a one-sided narrative. We have to tell the full story even if it's painful. Even if it's hurtful. We can't get to a place of healing and reconciliation until we address it."

Some of the words carved into the wall behind the third president's statue include a statement from the Declaration of Independence that became a lever later generations used to free slaves: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."

"He's getting all the credit for writing those words that he didn't practice that he did not believe in at that time, but yet he's getting the credit for it now," LaNier said. "So I think the foundation of people's belief systems and their ethics is what they believe and he just didn't believe the right things or at least he believed them but didn't want to be the one who practiced them."

The carved words also include criticism of slavery: "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." Yet LeNier bears in mind the knowledge, which he carried in his DNA, that Jefferson never freed the people who built his own Virginia home and worked his farm.

"He could have set an example with himself to say 'OK [other signers of the Declaration of Independence] don't believe it's going to be true, let me set an example by freeing my slaves. Let me set an example by paying my slaves,' " LaNier says. "He didn't do any of that because he enjoyed the free labor he loved living luxuriously."

Hear the full conversation in the audio player above.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the many descendants of Thomas Jefferson has a suggestion about his memorial in Washington, D.C. Shannon LaNier is talking at a time when Confederate statues are coming down. Some protesters have also questioned the Founding Fathers since many of them owned people who were enslaved. People that Jefferson legally owned included Sally Hemings, and Shannon LaNier, who identifies as Black, is descended from her, too.

SHANNON LANIER: So I am Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings' sixth great-grandson, which makes me a ninth-generation descendant.

INSKEEP: Were there times when you were a kid and you said, I'm descended from Thomas Jefferson and people said, nuh-uh?

LANIER: Oh, all the time. I talk about this story in my book, which is "Jefferson's Children: The Story Of One American Family," where I go to school and I tell the entire class that Thomas Jefferson is my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. And I was so excited to tell everybody. And the teacher said, sit down, and stop telling lies.

INSKEEP: DNA testing has made the story harder to deny now. And branches of Jefferson's descendants, Black and white, hold reunions. The third president's statue, 19 feet tall, stands beneath a dome here in Washington, D.C. His words are carved on the walls of that memorial, like the Declaration of Independence - we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. The carved words also include criticism of slavery. Quote, "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." Yet Shannon LaNier bears in mind the knowledge which he carries in his DNA that Thomas Jefferson never freed the people who built his own Virginia home and worked his farm.

LANIER: I think he was definitely a complex man. He was very smart. He was - you know, some might even saying he was a genius. But I just am conflicted because I wish he would have done more for my family. I wish he would have done more to free this world of slavery. I mean, he was the most powerful man in the country. He could have done more. And one abolitionist once wrote that never before has a man received such fame for what he did not do - because he wrote those words, all men are created equal. But yet he didn't practice them. And a lot of people gave him, you know, credit for those words. But it's up to us today to now use those words to ring true for every person in this country.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note he wrote other words that made it clear not only that all men are created equal but that he understood slavery was wrong and still did nothing about it.

LANIER: Right. He understood it was wrong. But since - what? - 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration owned slaves, they didn't want that to pass. They didn't want them to be freed. And you know, people said, oh, yeah, but he wrote it. Well, OK. Maybe he wrote it just so he could write it. But he didn't fight for it hard enough. He didn't fight for it enough so that it would be true. And he could have set an example with himself to say, OK - other signers don't believe it's going to be true; let me set an example by freeing my slaves. Let me set an example by paying my slaves. He didn't do any of that because he enjoyed the free labor. He loved living luxuriously. That's why he died $2 million in debt.

INSKEEP: How much credit does he deserve for the way those words were later used? All men are created equal became the creed of the country. It became a lever that later generations used to free slaves. It was one of Lincoln's central statements that he used again and again, referenced in the Gettysburg Address and other places.

LANIER: Now, I think it's complicated 'cause some people could say, yes, he wrote those words. But maybe some will say it was just a mistake. You know, how much credit does Christopher Columbus get for landing here? (Laughter) He didn't discover anything. And in Jefferson's case, hey, he's getting all the credit for writing those words that he didn't practice, that he did not believe in at that time. But yet he's getting the credit for it now. So I think the foundation of people's belief system and their ethics is what they believe. And he just didn't believe the right things or at least he believed them but didn't want to be the one who practiced them.

INSKEEP: Well, there's a really big memorial to Jefferson and a really big statue by the tidal basin here in Washington, D.C., where I am. What would you do with that memorial if it were up to you?

LANIER: Why not make it a true freedom center since they want to give credit to Jefferson for writing those words? Leave the words on the wall. Maybe remove the statue. Maybe surround his statue with other people that are symbols of freedom. The image of Jefferson is very painful. Some people see him as a slave owner. Some people see him as a rapist. Some people see him as more than just the founder of this country. So I think you have to have an opportunity to educate people. We can't just look at history as a one-sided narrative. We have to tell the full story and the - even if it's painful, even if it's hurtful. We can't get to a place of healing and reconciliation until we address it.

INSKEEP: So it sounds like you would like some thoughtful change to a memorial like that.

LANIER: Definitely. It's a great opportunity for this country to get it right, to say I see you; we recognize you; we understand your pain. Even Jefferson wrote, in those words on the walls, that we must change with our times, just like a man cannot wear the same coat that he wore as a boy. It's time that we changed. It's time that we really let those words heal and unify our country.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about an African American man that I interviewed last year in Charleston, S.C. And he started talking about the historic sites in that city in an old slave state. There's a slave market that's preserved there. And there are these mansions preserved there which, of course, belonged to slave owners. And he said he liked to go down and see those things, which surprised me a little bit because I would have maybe seen them as artifacts of oppression. But he said he was proud because he felt that his ancestors had built that stuff and had built the country. It was something that made him proud.

Are you proud in that way of something like Monticello or the various things that the Jefferson left behind or that are identified with Jefferson?

LANIER: Oh, I'm definitely proud of my ancestors. Even as I teach my kids, they say, you know, we came from slaves. Well, no, we came from people who were enslaved. And those were the strongest and best people you could have come from 'cause they survived. They gave their lives to build this country, to survive the middle passage to America in the first place. So I don't want to just think of it as this tarnished past. But also, they're the ones who built all those beautiful architectural designs at Monticello. They're the ones who were the craftsmen, the people who made the nails, the bricks. And I think we need to promote that more and look at them as, you know, these creative people that helped build this country.

INSKEEP: Shannon LaNier, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

LANIER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And the quote from Jefferson that LaNier mentions says in part, "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand-in-hand with the progress of the human mind. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when as a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.