“Wrighting”History’s Wrongs By Kendra Hamilton
When Dianne Swann Wright was hired as director of special programming at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, she became the first African American in a senior staff position at the organization that owns and operates Monticello, the Charlottesville, Va., historical site that was the home of the nation’s third president.
Swann-Wright’s hiring is arguably the most important of nearly a decade of staffing and programming changes at Monticello that have signaled a shift in the foundation’s attitude toward African Americans. The “pathetic Negroes” characterization — once put forth by Dr. Merrill D. Peterson, an endowed chair at the University of Virginia, who, in 1960, called the enduring story of Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings a fantasy — is out. These days, Dr. Dan Jordan, president of the foundation, likes to quote Julian Bond.
“African American history is American history,” Jordan says. “We believe you can’t understand Jefferson without understanding African Americans, and you certainly can’t understand Monticello without understanding slavery.”
Clearly, this is not your father’s Monticello.
Dr. Robert Watson, one-time head of Colonial Williamsburg’s African American Interpretation Program and currently an assistant professor of history at Hampton University, speaks for many in the museum community when he says, “I really admire Dianne Swann-Wright. She takes a lot of heat.”
“She’s been there less than a year, and she’s already had all kinds of impact,” adds Dr. Rex Ellis, chair of the division of cultural history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Both Watson and Ellis serve as advisers to Monticello on interpretation issues.
For an example of Swann-Wright’s impact, one needs look no further than Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon’s recent appearance at Monticello at Swann-Wright’s invitation. The Bernice Johnson Reagon — famed protest singer, co-founder of the SNCC Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock, voice of praise and mourning in Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series, and countless Smithsonian Folkways recordings.
The audience that made reservations days in advance to see Reagon was a rarity at Monticello: 50 percent White, 50 percent Black. But with all those Southerners gathered in one spot, Reagon didn’t have much trouble getting the crowd swaying in their seats, singing songs many hadn’t heard since childhood.
Afterwards, the audience sipped wine and munched salmon mousse on crackers with an abandon that might fool visitors into thinking such events were everyday fare. Which, of course, is untrue. But not because Monticello hasn’t offered such events; rather because Black audiences have tended to shun the mountaintop, even when events have been specifically designed to appeal to them (see cover story, pg 20).
That is the unfortunate, yet undeniable impact of institutional history. The difference, Ellis notes, is “Dianne’s presence. She lends a credibility and legitimacy to Monticello’s programs that no one [White] — however egalitarian they are, however much they may want it to happen — can match.”
Jordan puts it a slightly different way: “Dianne is a bridge-builder.” Carrying on a Family Tradition
So just who is this Dianne Swann-Wright? In many ways, the humblest objects in her handsomely appointed office at the International Center for Jefferson Studies may offer the most telling clues. The first is a lug — or braid — of tobacco, brownish with age and thick as a man’s wrist. The second is a desiccated ear of corn. They’re humble objects indeed, even though mounted in a burgundy and gold shadow box and set above an ornate mantelpiece. But Swann-Wright’s face is grave as she explains the story behind them. The lug was given to her father by his father — a Piedmont, Va. sharecropper — on the eve of her dad’s marriage in 1939. The ear of corn was given a bit later. Both were given for their symbolic value.
“It was a reminder to my father of who he was and where he came from,” Swann-Wright says. “To me, they’re quiet reminders of strength.”
Looking at them, Swann-Wright recalls family stories of hard-scrabble times, hard-working people, and a faith that ran bone deep despite the payoffs that were so few and came so far between.
“When I see those two artifacts, I think of my ancestors, of how hard they worked, and I know I can do the same,” she says.
Swann-Wright came to Monticello not as the result of a nationwide search, but through what some might think of as a lucky accident — lucky for her, but perhaps even luckier for the institution. Following a stint as a historian at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Baltimore, Swann-Wright came to Virginia 10 years ago as the director of multicultural programs at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg. Between the full-time job, marriage and a growing daughter, and a full-time load as a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Virginia’s history department, it felt as if Swann-Wright were balancing not just a full plate but dinner service for two with just one knee and one hand.
Then, her friends and mentors, Dr. Chuck Purdue of UVA’s Anthropology Department and his wife Nan, gave Wright a heads-up: “They said, ‘Monticello is looking for you.'”
Swann-Wright just laughed: “I said, ‘They’re not looking for me. Besides, I don’t have the time.'”
But the seed had been planted. Swann-Wright interviewed with Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, Monticello’s then-director of research. The year was 1993, and a reunion of Woodson descendants the previous summer at Monticello had just reaffirmed that there was a gaping crater in the institution’s allegedly comprehensive knowledge of life on Jefferson’s mountaintop. As Stanton notes: “All the oral history was from the slave-owning side.” And she proposed to close the gap with an ambitious project — identifying and collecting oral histories from all the descendants of all the families enslaved at Monticello.
“I remember thinking as I went in that there was no way in seven hells I was even going to try to find the time to do this,” Wright says, adding with a grave dimpling smile, “And if you’d ever met Cinder, you’d know that she’s not terribly persuasive. But it was almost as if someone had put the exact words into Cinder’s mouth that would persuade me. She said, ‘This won’t be about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. This won’t even be about the Hemings family. We will focus on the whole African American community. We’ll hear Civil War stories and Reconstruction stories and World War I and New Deal and World War II stories.'”
And with those words, a journey began for Swann-Wright and Stanton, a journey that was to take them six years and 22,000 miles, from the Pacific Coast to Massachusetts, with stops in every region between. With a catchy title — “Getting Word” — and a research design supplied by Wright, the project historian, those wonderful stories soon began to roll in.
The team found descendants active in the Underground Railroad and others who passed for White and served as officers in the Union army. The interviews led them to men like William Monroe Trotter, who co-wrote the Niagara Movement’s “Declaration of Principles” with W.E.B. Du Bois, and Lewis Woodson, one of the founders of Wilberforce University. Swann-Wright collected stories from ordinary men and women who lived full lives, loved their children and their country, and passed down eerily similar stories of descent from Monticello — or even from Thomas Jefferson himself.
And while Swann-Wright handled the interviews, Stanton, the project director, handled the documentary research and created the genealogies, definitively linking the various lines of family descent to men and women enslaved by Jefferson. The “Getting Word” research effort fed directly into all of Monticello’s burgeoning African American programs: the tours of Mulberry Row, where slave artisans lived and worked; the internships in African American interpretation, co-sponsored by the University of Virginia; the plantation community weekends, featuring costumed interpreters demonstrating crafts practiced along the Row. And by identifying subjects suitable for testing, “Getting Word” may even have paved the way for Dr. Eugene Foster’s highly controversial DNA study.Representing Change and Diffusing Controversy
In her new position, Swann-Wright finds herself running all of Monticello’s UVA and African American programming. She’s still the historian for “Getting Word”— training plantation interpreters, teaching the internship class, administering the plantation weekends, and planning joint events with other departments. Indeed, she regards her success in working with other department heads — for example, Peter Hatch, whose purview includes both the gardens and the garden guides — as one of her chief triumphs.
The collaboration with Hatch came about in a fashion that many are learning is typical of Swann-Wright’s style at Monticello. She had attended a lecture by Hatch and been surprised that there was so little information on the African American gardens and gardeners. But rather than accusing, Wright had simply asked why: “And it turned out that he just didn’t know. He’s a horticulturist.”
Accusation is simply not Swann-Wright’s style. Besides, she adds, “You can’t just assume, ‘Of course, they know these things.’ A good teacher learns that she has to teach to her class. I knew there were things that I knew that I could give to Peter and that there were things he could teach me about the garden experience that it would take me time to learn.” Swann-Wright pauses to smile: “So we learned together.”
And the teaching and learning didn’t stop with the joint talk they presented. Hatch now asks Wright to lecture during the garden guide training sessions. And the next step is publication of an article based on their collaboration.
“And that’s the true challenge when you bring into an organization someone who represents change,” notes Dr. Ellis. “She has to be someone who can ask that simple question and ask it in a way that doesn’t create controversy and tension, but creates instead the kind of willing attitude that says, ‘Hey, I’d like to work with you to make things better.'”
Ellis stresses that there’s a “great deal of pressure on Madame Dianne.” But “she can provide many, many opportunities that weren’t provided before. And as they begin to build confidence in her, they will begin to take risks.”
Indeed, there’s one pricey risk item on the table even as this article is on its way to press. Jordan confirms that Monticello is looking for grant monies to study and eventually fund the reconstruction of cabins and other buildings along Mulberry Row. However, there’s one little matter to get out of the way first — the report of an internal committee, chaired by Swann-Wright, that’s been charged with evaluating Foster’s DNA study in the context of all other evidence collected on the question of the Jefferson-Hemings connection. It’s a delicate job.
“There were people who were not prepared to admit this was ever even a possibility,” Jordan notes. “I have a full file drawer of letters and e-mails from people — very emotional, very adversarial.
“Slavery and race are very emotional topics. But we’re firmly committed to the belief that approaching things in a scholarly way defuses some of that tension. And it helps a lot that Dianne is such a fair person, with such an even temperament. She understands people’s hang-ups and she’s excellent at helping people work through these issues,” he says.
For her part, Swann-Wright admits she was surprised to find so much of her first year on the job taken up with an issue she regards with a certain wry detachment.
“I guess I was a bit naive,” she says, “but I wasn’t at all bothered about the fact that Dr. Eugene Foster was conducting his DNA study because I knew I didn’t need DNA evidence to tell me what had happened in the lives of Black folks. For six years, I had simply asked them what happened and they told me what they had been told.”
And those stories were remarkable in their consistency, told by people who’d never met and who didn’t even know they were related, Wright says. So as she goes about her day-to-day duties — putting out fires, calming fears, building bridges between the old Monticello and the new — those stories are quiet reminders of strength for Swann-Wright. Just like the lug of tobacco and the ear of corn, like the watercolor of Thurgood Marshall that hangs just over her shoulder, the oil painting of slaves in Jefferson’s garden by her friend Nathaniel Gibbs, the graceful carvings that are some of her “favorite things” from Kenya.
For Swann-Wright is not exactly “all alone” up on Jefferson’s mountaintop as friends — like Ellis, Dorothy Spruill Redford of Somerset Place historic site in North Carolina, and Louis Massiah of “Eyes on the Prize” fame — feared she would be when she first came to Monticello.
In the warmth and peace of her surroundings, even the casual visitor can sense that the ancestors are with her.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com