Wormley Hughes

Monticello is full of beauty, light, and grace. Less than a mile away from the house itself, in the visitor’s center, is a recreation of one of Jefferson’s slaves’ dwellings. It’s dark, gloomy, and cramped. Jefferson designed the house with all of the “dependencies” – where the work was done – hidden beneath the building in catacomb-like tunnels. The word “dependencies” struck me as a funny one, in this situation. As you walk through the house and grounds you realize that Jefferson and his family had a complete and childlike dependence on their slaves. Their slaves dressed them, fed their babies, raised their children, grew their food, cooked their food, made their furniture, dug their graves.

The man who dug Jefferson’s grave was named Wormley Hughes…Wormley Hughes was informally (not legally) freed after Jefferson’s death (famously, on July 4th), and shortly thereafter, Hughes’ wife and 8 of his children were divided and sold away from each other. 

The man who dug Jefferson’s grave was named Wormley Hughes. He was the principal gardener at Monticello. The garden at Monticello is a true thing of wonder. Beautiful, useful, inspiring – a perfect spot to sit and ponder questions of liberty and independence. Wormley Hughes was informally (not legally) freed after Jefferson’s death (famously, on July 4th), and shortly thereafter, Hughes’ wife and 8 of his children were divided and sold away from each other. 

Wormley Hughes

It is said that of all of Jefferson’s achievements, he was most proud of his garden and his farm. Of course his farm was only a success because of the people who worked it, and was a financial success because he didn’t pay those people, he owned them. Hughes created and tended the garden, and it’s likely that he worked side by side with Jefferson, laying out the flowerbeds, spreading dung in the vegetable garden, preparing and planting the soil with seeds, bulbs, and trees sent back from Washington, vegetables from Italy, salsify from the Lewis and Clark expedition, figs from France, peppers from Mexico. He dug the ha-ha and cleared roads to the mountaintop. He blasted rock for the construction of a canal. According to one historian, trusting him with blasting powder was akin to trusting him with a loaded gun. Little is known about the relationship of Jefferson and Hughes, but it’s hard to imagine two men working together to plan and plant a garden, especially one so beautiful, without sharing some friendship. I couldn’t find many words attributed to Wormley Hughes, other than that when faced with an obstacle he would say, “I am in no wise discouraged,” which, considering his circumstances is both beautiful and profoundly sad.

Some slaves were given their own garden plots, which they could work in the evenings, after working from sun-up to sun-down for Jefferson. (Excellent article on the subject by Justin Bates.) This must have been a rare chance to create their own place in the world, to make something of their own design, something nurturing and sustaining. To tend to their own garden in the broader sense.

There is a sense that they are finding peace in a very, very harsh world, but not entirely by ignoring the world, rather by creating a world of their own within it.

When Voltaire spoke about tending one’s own garden in Candide, though it is frequently interpreted as “minding one’s own business,” in fact, to me, it means something quite different. The Dervish who gives them this advice grows the food he needs for his family, and they work together on growing it, as a community, sustaining themselves and enjoying their labor and the fruits of it. They are not insular; when they meet Candide and his friends–foreigners, let’s remember–they invite them into their home and give them sherbets and Turkish cream and orange, lemons, pineapples, pistachios and coffee. They share their bounty. There is a sense that they are finding peace in a very, very harsh world, but not entirely by ignoring the world, rather by creating a world of their own within it.

For the slaves who were permitted to garden for themselves, time, energy and resources were sadly limited. But I hope they found some comfort and peace in the small world they created. Thomas Jefferson had everything available to him: Knowledge, money, resources, unpaid labor, both in cultivating his farm at Monticello, and in building a country, America, based on lofty ideals of the equality of men. So much beauty, and cleverness – so many good ideas being exchanged, and important work being done. And literally hidden beneath all of it, so much pain and suffering.

Addendum: I am not a historian, I’m just an American who finds shows of patriotism such as we witness on the fourth of July complicated and confusing. The history of Wormley Hughes, as I understand it, goes a long way to demonstrate why.

Hughes’ grandmother was Elizabeth Hemings, and the history of Hemings and her family, her parents, her children and grandchildren, is full of the sadness and complexity of the history of our nation at the time of its birth until the present day. She was the daughter of an English sea captain and a slave. We do have some words about this, from her grandson, Madison Hemings, the child of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

I never knew of but one white man who bore the name of Hemings; he was an Englishman and my greatgrandfather. He was captain of an English trading vessel which sailed between England and Williamsburg, Va., then quite a port. My great-grandmother was a fullblooded African, and possibly a native of that country. She was the property of John Wales, a Welchman. Capt. Hemings happened to be in the port of Williamsburg at the time my grandmother was born, and acknowledging her fatherhood he tried to purchase her of Mr. Wales, who would not part with the child, though he was offered an extraordinarily large price for her. She was named Elizabeth Hemings. Being thwarted in the purchase, and determined to own his flesh and blood he resolved to take the child by force or stealth, but the knowledge of his intention coming to John Wales’ ears, through leaky fellow servants of the mother, she and the child were taken into the “great house” under their master’s immediate care. I have been informed that it was not the extra value of that child over other slave children that induced Mr. Wales to refuse to sell it, for slave masters then, as in later days, had no compunctions of conscience which restrained them from parting mother and child of however tender age, but he was restrained by the fact that just about that time amalgamation began, and the child was so great a curiosity that its owner desired to raise it himself that he might see its outcome. Capt. Hemings soon afterwards sailed from Williamsburg, never to return. Such is the story that comes down to me.

– Madison Hemings

Elizabeth became the concubine of John Wayles, the father of Martha Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s future wife, which makes Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings half-sisters. But that’s a story for another time and a more qualified teller.

We also have words from Wormley’s grandson, Fountain Hughes, who was freed in 1865 after the American Civil War. He was interviewed in 1949 by Hermond Norwood, a Library of Congress engineer, and he speaks about the horrors of slavery, and the nearly equal horrors of being set free with nothing and nowhere to go in a country hostile to your very being. Asked if he preferred to live as a slave or free, he said he would rather die than live again as a slave. Listen to the moving interview here.

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  1. When I think of Jefferson I think of him in his Garden Pavilion, cultivating his great thoughts while the fields around him are being worked by unfree people, bent to labor.
    In a world of moral high-ground, Jefferson is a mudslide.
    Thank you for your writing.


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