Thomas Jefferson is known for his many accomplishments, but he wished to be remembered for only three: author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia on Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” However, in Jefferson’s mind, these rights did not extend to the enslaved African Americans who built and maintained one of his greatest achievements, the University of Virginia. The University was built as a model of democracy, on the backs of the enslaved.
The aim of this exhibit is to portray Thomas Jefferson’s complexities and the contradictions that arose between his democratic ideals and his beliefs and actions as a slaveholder, and to highlight the lives and work of the enslaved individuals who built and maintained the University of Virginia. Below, you can view images of construction work done by enslaved individuals at the university; explore the work spaces of enslaved women Lucy Cottrell and Isabella Gibbons; view a 3D reconstruction of Jefferson’s Rotunda; and compare Jefferson’s designs with their classical inspirations.