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The Missouri History Museum’s Jefferson statue gets context — and grapples with slavery

The Thomas Jefferson statue at the Missouri Historical Society has been displayed with missing historical context.
Missouri Historical Society
The Thomas Jefferson statue at the Missouri Historical Society has been displayed without historical context.

For more than 100 years, the Thomas Jefferson statue at the Missouri History Museum has stood largely without context. Erected in 1913 to celebrate the Louisiana Purchase and the 1904 World’s Fair, the 9-foot-tall sculpture in the museum’s lobby was the country’s first public memorial dedicated to its third president.

Now, after a two-year process, the Missouri History Museum is installing three interpretive panels that describe Jefferson’s complex legacy.

Even though Jefferson made public statements opposing slavery, calling it a “hideous blot,” his private actions told a different story. Over the course of his life, Jefferson enslaved more than 600 people and had six children with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, the first when she was 16.

Priscilla Dowden-White and Jody Sowell helped decide how to interpret Jefferson's complex legacy.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Priscilla Dowden-White and Jody Sowell helped decide how to interpret Jefferson's complex legacy.

The new panels, which go live Tuesday, grapple with that history. They include one titled “Freedom and Enslavement” that explicitly acknowledges Jefferson’s ties to slavery.

“He sought to expand white Americans’ rights and opportunities while at the same time profiting from the enslavement of Black men, women, and children at his Virginia plantation, Monticello,” the panel reads in part. “The Declaration of Independence remains inspirational. It has stirred the hearts of people in the United States and around the world. But Jefferson’s words cannot be separated from his actions. These are the contradictions we must wrestle with today.”

The idea that the added context will spur more conversation about Jefferson is welcome news to Priscilla Dowden-White, an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“I cannot think of a better illustration for us to engage the complexities not only of history, but of today,” explained Dowden-White on St. Louis on the Air. “A lot of times we don't want to deal with complexities, we just want to deal with the sound bites. Thomas Jefferson won't allow us to do that.”

Listen: Grappling with Jefferson's complex legacy

Along with museum staff, a representative from the Osage Nation and other academicians, Dowden-White served on the advisory committee for how to interpret Jefferson's legacy. The two-year process also involved more than 100 reviewers who provided feedback on the text of the panels.

The museum’s acknowledgement of Jefferson as a slaveholder and as a complex historical figure is not new. Jody Sowell, managing director of public history at the Missouri Historical Society, recalls an exhibit there nearly 10 years ago called “Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.”

“So sometimes people say, ‘Why didn't you do this 20 years ago? Why didn't you do it 50 years ago?’” Sowell said. “The answer is we should have. But we're doing it now, and I think that's what's most important.”

How the Missouri History Museum handles complex topics is an ongoing discussion, Sowell said. “And I would say that's true of all history and wrestling with it and all its contradictions. Its complexity is what makes history so interesting and so important.”

Related Event

What: Rethinking Monuments & Memorials panel discussion
When: 6:30 p.m. April 28
Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.