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Paths to Freedom

“Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the magnificent words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here.” Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail.



The Jefferson Memorial, seen across the Tidal Basin from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Jefferson’s writing in the Declaration may have been magnificent, as King put it, but his role as a slaveowner was the polar opposite. Blacks “were here,” always, picking his tobacco, sewing his family’s clothes, cooking his food. Robert Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved body servant, waited on him in his Market Street house in Philadelphia while he wrote America’s founding document. While recognizing that slavery was “evil,” Jefferson only formally freed seven of the over six hundred people he owned in the course of his life (unlike some of his contemporaries, like Washington, who emancipated their slaves).


Robert Hemings was one of the few enslaved people at Monticello who succeeded in charting a path to freedom. He carefully saved up money from outside jobs he was able to perform and, in 1794, got Jefferson to (reluctantly) agree to sell him to a doctor who had promised that he could work off the purchase price. After his liberation, Hemings ran his own fruit stand in Richmond, Virginia with his wife Dolly, raising two children.


Jefferson’s emancipation of Robert Hemings

But Hemings’ case was unusual; for nearly all of the people owned by Jefferson, the long march to freedom took generations. The Hubbard family is a case in point. On July 4, 1776, James Hubbard worked as an enslaved waterman, transporting goods on the James River, and farm laborer for Jefferson. When he reached the age of eleven, his son (also named James) worked alongside “a dozen little boys,” as Jefferson put it, at the Monticello nailery.


In 1805, the younger James made a bid for freedom with a forged pass. Unfortunately, he was caught and imprisoned in the Fairfax County jail before being returned to Monticello. The Fairfax connection shocked me—I grew up a few miles from the courthouse and historic jail and never recalled this story being told there.


The 1885 Fairfax jail, built after the original 1802 structure burned down.

He later tried to escape again, but was caught and sold down South, where his ultimate fate is today unknown. For most of the members of the Hubbard family, emancipation would only come, then, with the Civil War.


The struggle for equality, to make the words of the Declaration ring true for all Americans, continues on today. And it’s important to never give up on the fight to secure freedom. “Out of the mountain of despair,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, comes “a stone of hope.”