A few years ago, I spent a week of study at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. There, on display in a glass box on Mulberry row, where the slave quarters were, is a chunk of clay chinking with a clearly visible handprint. A chunk of clay that once filled a gap between logs in a slave cabin on the plantation of the writer of the Declaration of Independence. It is an impression left by an enslaved person. And such marks are all over the South… hidden, yet visible. Reminders of the lifetimes of unpaid labor… of the abuse, inhumanity, and exploitation and reminders of that person’s humanity.
“All men are created equal…” Jefferson wrote. It is part of our creed as Americans. And John Hemmings was an enslaved master cabinet maker, joiner, and carpenter… who while Jefferson was away, interpreted Jefferson’s drawing, corresponded with Jefferson and supervised white and enslaved crews as they enlarged and renovated Monticello. The writing table and bookshelves, the joinery in the house… all were the work of John Hemmings. That chinking sits right outside a reconstruction of the Hemming’s cabin… Where John’s mother Elizabeth likely lived and died. Jefferson owned 70 members of that family… including at least four that fathered by him.
The traditional paternalistic view is that Jefferson built Monticello. But like John Hemmings, the bulk of labor was done by enslaved men, women and children. The lumber was cut and milled by slaves. The bricks were shaped and fired by slaves. Even the nails were made on site by enslaved children… boys as young as six, whose labor at this young age would be judged by the master and determine if they would have a short brutal life, toiling in the fields on the quarter farms, or a slightly longer, less harsh life working skilled jobs up on Mulberry row or perhaps even working in the main house. Jefferson built Monticello. But someone else swung the hammers and set the bricks. Someone else made the nails. Someone long forgotten dug the holes and mixed the mortar and filed and planed and grinded and morticed and sanded and set and sanded and plastered and roofed and painted.
When I walked Charlottesville or explored the University of Virginia, I would look for those square headed nails, I would look at the bricks… for those finger marks fired into them. In every building and even the cobble stone streets that pre dated the civil war I would look for the signs left by the forgotten people whose labor put them there, erecting the buildings, cutting the wood, clearing the land, laying the clay pipes that still drain those streets…
We live in a world built over the work of slaves, even here in California, or sometimes on land stolen from someone. And behind our modern world, there were girls that toiled in mills and boys that crawled through mines. And there were millions who died forgotten after years of swinging hammers, or pulling loads, or driving mules or working the land with hand hard and cracked. Someone forged the iron and bent the steel and manned the presses and machined the nuts and bolts and that holds it all together. And so today, I hear the talk of “job creators…” of the great men who built this or that in language that ignores the actual people who do the work… those who labor in the heat of the day and in the rain for countless hours over a lifetime… whose handprints are on the bricks and in the chinking… whose blood and sweat are in those nails driven long ago or in the steel and faded paint rolling down the road from some now abandoned factory.
Names lost to history. Labor ignored by language. Marks left largely unnoticed.
They surround us.