Jefferson’s architectural sense was genius, combining classicism with his own vision and use of American building materials. His legacy is on full display at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk in their exhibit “Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles and the Conflict of Ideals.” It’s all there: models of his structures in white plaster, with their sinuous curves and elegant columns. A head of Apollo, which once gazed out from the north piazza frieze at Monticello. Jefferson’s drafting instruments, gleaming gold. His architectural drawings, marrying grace and order.
But the curators made sure this orchestra of architecture includes discordant notes. The Chrysler Museum integrates the work and artifacts of enslaved laborers, who did so much to bring the buildings to life, into the exhibit. There’s a rich, mahogany-colored door carved by John Hemmings. A display on Benjamin Banneker, the gifted free African-American surveyor and astronomer, who denounced slavery in a letter to Jefferson (and who Jefferson would never hire directly). And, most poignantly of all, left by an enslaved worker in a Monticello brick: a handprint frozen in time, fingers splayed in red clay.
Even more unexpected was an app which presented commentary on the exhibits. But not from some dispassionate narrator: these were “community voices,” the thoughts of local citizens reacting to both the beauty and discomfort on display. I heard Gerald Daniels, the past president of the Virginia Beach NAACP and son of a carpenter, talk about his sense of pride in Hemmings’ masterful work on the door. “The slaves that came over… made a very, very valuable, still-standing contribution to the fabric of architecture here in America,” he said. And Barbara Hamm Lee, a radio show host, spoke on her emotional reaction to the handprint in the brick, which brought the actual lives of enslaved workers home to here. “They were real,” she said.
Driving away and still processing the exhibit, I thought about the communities in Norfolk and its environs, still grappling with the aftereffects of an unjust system centuries later. Some 20 miles up the road I passed the road which led to the Langley Research Center, where African-Americans worked as “human computers” for NASA in the 1960’s. They fought discrimination and prejudice in their own right, all while working, with no room for error, to put a man on the moon. Yet for all their technological brilliance, they remained in the shadows for years until their stories came to light in the film and book “Hidden Figures.” Learning about their stories only deepens your appreciation of the Apollo mission when you realize the sacrifices they made behind the scenes.
Now people can discover the narratives, different but compelling, of their spiritual ancestors, the men and women who helped execute Jefferson’s architectural designs and others across the South. Our appreciation of the beauty of these buildings is truer when we learn about the pain behind the perfect-looking façades, about the men who built works of art and made complicated calculations. Who left their handprints behind as markers of their own humanity. Hidden builders, invisible no more.