Schooling a President

Apparently I'm on a "presidential boyhood home" kick. (Who's looking forward to hearing about presidential girlhood homes someday?) After touring George Washington's birthplace (and curious reconstruction) in January, we visited the place where Thomas Jefferson lived from the ages of two to nine, and also where he first attended school.

Tuckahoe Plantation, outside of Richmond, Virginia, is actually still a private residence. The grounds are open to self-guided tour (with an honor system payment), and guided tours can be arranged by appointment. We took a beautiful Sunday afternoon to wander the grounds ourselves, while the owners of the home unloaded groceries from the car and shot hoops. 

The Randolph family built the home between 1730-1740, and it's in a distinctive H-shape, with two large portions of the house joined in the middle. Thomas Jefferson's family moved to the house in 1745 so his parents could care for the orphaned Randolph children, in accordance with Mr. Randolph's will. He moved out when the oldest son came of age.

It's easy to imagine the young (white) children running out the door of the big house and following the chiding call of their teacher into the small schoolhouse to the left of the house. Even my five-year-old daughter, who affects to know everything, was surprised at the tiny scale of the school room.

But this is a plantation in Virginia, which means enslaved African Americans. Probably a lot of them for a farm that reached 25,000 acres at its height. To the right of the main house are three slave cabins. (The third cabin isn't visible in this picture; the building in the background is the stable.)

The stair treads up to this slave cabin door looked like stone to me, which suggests they are original. My heart ached to imagine all the pain those stairs carried, both at the beginning of another harrowing day of enslavement and at its exhausting conclusion. I imagine a good number of those children and their parents looked with longing to the other side of the lawn, where young Thomas and the other white children scampered into the schoolhouse. (Side note: I just finished James McBride's phenomenal Song Yet Sung, and I can't recommend it enough. He follows a cast of characters escaping, enduring, or perpetuating slavery in Maryland's eastern shore in the 1850s.)

The kitchen. Imagine working there on a hot Virginia day.

The kitchen. Imagine working there on a hot Virginia day.

I wonder too what Thomas thought as he watched those other children. I don't know enough about his history to have an opinion, and who knows, maybe he didn't have an opinion either. Maybe he had internalized the dehumanization of those enslaved black children so easily that it didn't occur to him to think they might yearn to join him. I'm sure that was the case for a lot of rich white children at the time. But who knows, maybe this particular boy had some other thoughts. That's where historical fiction comes in, right?

In 1752 the house returned to the Randolph family, and I guess some of them must have stayed there for a while. There's an appropriately creepy little graveyard with Randolph graves from the early 19th century. From what I could read, at least.

I don't believe in spiritual ghosts (though I wish I did). But I do believe in historical ghosts -- those echoes of history that reverberate through the generations. The legacy of slavery is an obvious one, and the inheritance of knowledge and education that we pass along every time a child steps into a schoolroom is another. The modern curriculum is probably almost unrecognizable from that which the young Tom learned in the 1740s, but I suspect the ghosts of what he learned and what he did are with us still.


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