COLUMN: Does Thomas Jefferson’s supposed history with the university outweigh his past?
MU’s Task Force for Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson Statue’s attempt to contextualize Thomas Jefferson falls flat.
Feb. 20, 2021
Keara Shannon is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about human rights and race relations for The Maneater.
MU’s Task Force for Contextualization of the Thomas Jefferson Statue sent a report to UM System President and Chancellor Mun Choi on Jan. 15. This report recommends that a sign be placed next to the statue detailing Jefferson’s past. However, its contents make his actions seem dismissable when in reality, Thomas Jefferson is not someone to be revered.
Contributions? What contributions?
The proposed sign begins with Jefferson’s ties to the university ㄧ ties that are barely existent in the first place.
"The Trustees of the University of Missouri’s Jefferson Club presented the campus with George Lundeen’s sculpture of Thomas Jefferson and the garden surrounding it to commemorate Jefferson’s belief in the importance of public education, political democracy, and intellectual discovery, which led to the creation of the first public university in the Louisiana Purchase territory--the University of Missouri--on land ceded by the Indigenous inhabitants in the Treaty of Fort Clark of 1808, the Osage Treaty of 1825, and the Treaty of August 4, 1824 (Cession 69)...”_
With how hard MU is fighting for this statue, one would believe that Jefferson himself founded the university. What Jefferson really did was purchase territory from France 一 which happened to include Missouri 一 and the university was later founded by James S. Rollins.
Rollins owned 34 slaves, making him one of Boone County's largest slave owners. Rollins is shunned by his great-grandson who started the James S. Rollins Slavery Atonement Endowment to fund research in MU's Black Studies Department.
According to an article written by Richard Webner of the Columbia Missourian, “He had to argue with the MU News Bureau to keep the reference to slavery in the endowment's name because employees were worried it would draw bad press.”
It seems that trying to hide the institution’s racist founding isn’t foreign to MU.
Instead of highlighting people like Jefferson or Rollins, why can’t MU give attention to figures like Lloyd Gaines or Lucille Bluford? These individuals were denied admission into MU because they were Black. Now their names are on buildings around campus, but no one knows why. They deserve a plaque or statue detailing their contributions to the university because they certainly contributed more than Jefferson did.
What about the Osage tribe that gave up their land with which the university stands? They contributed more to the university than Jefferson did as well, but no one knows about it. If it weren’t for them leaving Missouri, would MU even exist?
Jefferson’s views on race
The next part of the text reads as follows:
“Lundeen depicts Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence, stressing his authorship of the radical notion that ‘all men are created equal.’ Jefferson recognized that the United States failed to live up to this principle, asking a decade later: ‘Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? . . . . Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.’”
This part makes it sound like the task force is trying to disprove claims that Jefferson was indeed a racist, but history proves that this reigns true. Monticello, his own estate, says:
“Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal,’ and yet enslaved more than six-hundred people over the course of his life. Although he made some legislative attempts against slavery and at times bemoaned its existence, he also profited directly from the institution of slavery and wrote that he suspected black people to be inferior to white people in his Notes on the State of Virginia.”
These notes are riddled with disgustingly racist rhetoric such as saying that white people are more beautiful than Black people.
“Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?” Jefferson wrote.
He then says later on that Black people are less intelligent with reasoning and in imagination are “dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
After writing the Declaration of Independence and declaring that all men are created equal, Jefferson did not free his slaves. In fact, he continued buying them. He only freed five of them after his death — all relatives of Sally Hemings, who was still kept as a slave. He supported the deportation of freed Black Americans to Africa or the West Indies and “beyond the reach of mixture” and characterized Black people as being “as incapable as children.”
He used pseudoscience to justify the inferiority of Africans, and assumptions like the ones in his notes are precisely what further convinced people that we were indeed inferior to white people. Sure, this was the attitude of that time period, but does that make it excusable? If racism was the norm during this period in time, then why do we focus so much on it? So many people are ignorant about just how racist many of our founding fathers are and the U.S. continues to let this happen.
Jefferson and Sally Hemings
The next part of the proposed sign details Jefferson’s “relationship” with Sally Hemings — if one can call it that — and his treatment of Native Americans.
“Jefferson later fathered six children with Sally Hemings, one of more than 600 people he enslaved throughout his life, and instigated policies that led to the forcible removal of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.”
This section glazes over his relationship with Sally Hemings. Sally was very much underage at the time of her pregnancy, with reports stating that she was as young as 15 -16 years old. There are those who speculate the nature of their relationship, but during the time, female slaves could not refuse unwanted sexual advances by their owners. It is not possible that she consented since she was enslaved.
Additionally, Sally’s son Madison Hemings recalled that when Jefferson was returning to America, Sally refused to come back from Paris as his daughter Maria’s domestic servant and maid, and only did so after negotiating “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for her future children.
Could a relationship even be consensual when the woman is being held captive by her owner? There is an obvious power dynamic at play here. The details regarding their relationship are still very unclear. However, with Sally’s refusal to go back to Monticello only until she was able to negotiate a better life for herself and her children, things aren’t looking too romantic.
MU hides from the truth
The final piece of text is pretty side-eye worthy.
“Other American leaders and visionaries, including Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Vine Deloria Jr., Harvey Milk, and others, have used Jefferson’s words to assert the rights and freedoms of all people. Today, Jefferson’s words and his dedication to the pursuit of knowledge encourage students of the University of Missouri to surpass those who came before them as they embrace Mizzou’s values of Respect, Responsibility, Discovery, and Excellence."
It gives off an “I’m not racist. My friends are Black” tone using people like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., important Black figures that people are largely familiar with and Native American activist and author Dr. Vine Deloria Jr.
This entire sign promotes the notion that Jefferson’s contributions to America outweigh his damage on Black and Native populations around the country. MU’s Task Force shouldn’t sugarcoat everything that Jefferson has done. The fact that they have shows that they know that his dirty laundry is inexcusable.
That, or they didn’t do their research.
Listen to the students that are uncomfortable about the statue and his gravestone. Yes, donors from the Jefferson Club donate a lot to the university, but what would a university be without its students? We pay so much money ー hundreds of acrylic cases worth in fact 一 to keep MU running.
The fact that they've barely listened to what Black students want and instead punish them for speaking up is sad to see. It’s blatant hypocrisy for a school claiming to be so intent on promoting diversity and inclusion on campus to push the voices of their minority students to the side in the name of “history.” Thomas Jefferson is not someone we should look up to, and this sign just doesn’t cut it.
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Edited by Sofi Zeman | email@example.com