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Descendant Community Impacts on Visitor Experiences at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Authors: Stephen Hanna*, University of Mary Washington, Kelsey Chavers, University of Mary Washington, Chinnae Faustor, University of Mary Washington, Kylie James, University of Mary Washington, Emma J Walcott-Wilson, University of Tennessee
Topics: Cultural Geography, Ethnicity and Race, Tourism Geography
Keywords: tourism geographies, Black geographies, presidential plantation museums
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In the United States, plantation tourism sites have been justly criticized for marginalizing the history of slavery, as well as the people who were once-enslaved at the sites, from their tours and exhibits. As a result, visitor experiences can reinforce white-centric understandings of history and, thereby, make it more difficult for people to understand the continuing legacy slavery has on racial inequities today. This is especially true of presidential plantation sites, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, where tours and exhibits have focused on Jefferson’s life and his contributions to national history. Over the past 25 years, however, Monticello has partnered with descendants of once enslaved people in an effort called “Getting Word” - an oral history project through which the descendants can recover their family histories and this plantation’s Black geographies. Getting Word also informs how enslavement is incorporated in tours and exhibits offered to Monticello’s visitors.

In this paper, we provide a preliminary assessment of the impacts Monticello’s Getting Word Project has on visitor experiences. To do this, we describe the museum’s exhibits and most popular tours to identify how and where slavery, its continuing legacy, the experiences of enslaved people, and the role of descendants are present. We then use voluntary pre-visit survey responses to determine visitors’ baseline interest in learning about enslavement at Monticello and post-visit surveys to evaluate how much visitors report learning about the enslaved and their descendants, and whether visitor interest in the topic changed as a result.

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