3. The Slave Quarters at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson had a clock installed on an exterior Monticello wall that only had an hour hand. Jefferson, who believed that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” figured that hour increments were all that the slaves could understand or needed to know. He built cabins for the house slaves about a hundred yards from the mansion. The blacks who worked the fields were housed at a further distance from his abode. That way, they and the slavery in which they toiled were out of his sight in both the literal and figurative senses.
Jefferson’s slaves originally lived in two-room cabins, with one family per room and a single shared doorway to the outside. From the 1790s onwards, the slaves were housed in single-room cabins, each with its own door. By the dismal standards of American slavery at the time, the lives of Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello were less terrible than average (whatever that means in the context of slavery). Their lot was still bad, but not as bad as the lot of most other slaves with most other masters. As seen below, Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves went beyond matters of forced labor.