Barreling out of Washington National airport on Friday afternoon, October 5, 2018, my cousin, his wife and I headed south for a family reunion in Charlottesville, Virginia. Leslie, in the back seat kept a close watch on her iPhone messages for news of the controversial vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh who had been accused of sexual molestation as a teenager. I sat in the passenger seat next to my cousin, Bill, making sure my iPhone didn’t jiggle out of the USB charging port in the console. I’d arrived from Chicago where the verdict of Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial was about to be announced. Van Dyke shot 19-year old Laquan McDonald sixteen times on a southside street in full view of a dashcam. When I left home at 7:00 in the morning police were already positioned on every corner of the Loop anticipating riots in the streets if the jury acquitted Van Dyke.

Messages started lighting up the car halfway down Route 66. All the Senators we thought might vote against Kavanaugh caved. 

Leslie reported from the back seat.

“Collins is a yes.” 

“Flake’s voting for him now.” 

“Manchin is a yes.”

It was like the reading of the dead at a war memorial. Our once hoped-for heroes were dead to us now. Through my gadget came news that the jury came in with a 2nd-degree murder conviction for Jason Van Dyke. Justice prevailed somewhere out there in the middle distance but I was geographically removed from quick-fix relief and drawn into the pall in the car on the Virginia highway. I anticipated a gloomy night in the larger group of our politically-charged and mostly-Democratic relatives. 

In the dusk of warm Virginia horse country two hundred of us gathered on the lawn of th-1our kind and generous relative, Ann—sisters and brothers, cousins, 2nd cousins,1st cousins once removed, spouses, partners and all their small children. Our casual salutations were loving and genuine but often cut short.

“Did you hear Manchin voted yes?”

“I just saw Kavanaugh’s getting sworn in tomorrow.”

During afternoon free time the next day, some of us wound our way up a forested valley road to Monticello, the mountaintop plantation of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Up until the 1950s, this father figure came to us a hero, our 3rd President, author of the Declaration of Independence, purchaser of the Louisiana Territory and the guy who sent Lewis and Clark to Oregon by canoe. We began to hear about his slave ownership in 1960s periodicals. All accounts were accompanied by declarations that Jefferson hated slavery and tried to abolish it. So we still had our hero.

Sometime in the 1990s historians uncovered research documenting that even though Virginia had a strong free-slave movement in the early 1800s, Jefferson was not a part of it. He even built a new road to Monticello to hide his slave quarters from visiting abolitionists. We started to doubt our hero-father. 

Then came Sally Hemmings.

In 1998 DNA testing showed Thomas Jefferson fathered his slave’s six children. The Sally Hemmings exhibit at Monticello tells us the relationship started when fourteen-year-old Sally lived in Paris with Jefferson and his daughter. The exhibit rightly asks the question, “Was it rape?” 

Indeed it was. 

And what of our hero now?

 

monticello
Monticello’s slave quarters

 

6 thoughts on “The Once and Future President by Regan Burke

  1. Regan, So well done and so poignant. Thank you for this. – Nancie

    P.S. Are the slave quarters still there? When I visited Charlottesville some years ago, I was told these were student quarters, but I remember them a bit differently….not quite so free-standing.

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  2. It is hard to find them some days, some months, some years. But I just read the column by Leonard Pitts Jr. who calls “Progressives” to hope and action. Take care, and thank you again.

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