Though she initially planned only to document her family history, B. Bernetiae Reed, a retired nurse and amateur genealogist, eventually ended up producing an impressive two-volume genealogical study of Thomas Jefferson's slaves that's drawing raves from such distinguished historians as John Hope Franklin. Reed self-published The Slave Families of Thomas Jefferson, a two-volume pictorial study that documents the lives of 619 slaves living at Monticello, in December of last year. She researched and compiled the work based upon Jefferson's Farm Book, a journal used during colonial times to record births and deaths among the estate's slaves.
That book, Reed said, inspired her to begin documenting the lives of Jefferson's slaves; by 2005 she had produced a series of 6×9-ft. wall charts that traced the 619 slaves. After receiving encouragement from experts at Monticello, she went on to expand the charts into a book and later, an easily accessible online database.
Reed taught herself to use (and modify) a variety of genealogical and desktop publishing software programs to suit the unique production needs of her book. She decided to self-publish the book through Sylvest-Sarah Inc.—named after her great-great grandparents—a company she had launched for an unrelated project. “I can be kind of inflexible once I have a vision. I always knew I wanted to self-publish,” Reed said.
The two volumes are packed with photos, illustrations and maps, and the books provide general information—census records, copies of original documents, a mammoth index—about Jefferson and his plantations. And the genealogy charts include the names, birthdates, skills, family relationships and dispersal—slaves sold away—information about the slaves. “It was important to me that each slave be identifiable,” Reed said.
It took Reed three years to compile the books, during which time she received guidance from Lucia Stanton, senior historian at Monticello, and a fellowship from the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. The Jefferson Library at Monticello—which has called the books “massive and magnificent”—purchased seven sets.
The initial printing for the set was 5,000 copies and Reed, who is handling sales and distribution herself, said the book was “selling well.” The oversized books are primarily in color, leather-bound with dust jackets, and run about 500 pages each. Each set sells for $175 ($250 after June 30). The books are available through Reed's Web site (sylvest-sarah.com) as well as at museum shops and bookstores at Monticello, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Historical Society. The University of North Carolina Library, Duke University Library and other libraries also purchased copies.
Reed said that when she started this project, “I had no idea it would come to this.” And she plans to keep updating the database. “There's always more research to do,” she said.