Thomas Jefferson wrote "all men are created equal" to declare U.S. independence from Britain, yet he also was a lifelong slave owner who freed only nine of his more than 600 slaves.

That contradiction between ideals and reality is at the center of a just-opened exhibit in Washington, D.C., as the Smithsonian Institution continues developing a national black history museum. It offers a look at Jefferson's Monticello plantation in Virginia through the lives of six slave families and artifacts from where they lived.

The exhibit, "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty," will be on view at the National Museum of American History through mid-October. It includes a look at the family of Sally Hemings, a slave. Most historians now believe she had an intimate relationship with the third president and that he fathered her children. 



In the exhibit, oral histories from descendants of Jefferson's slaves reveal stories passed down through generations, along with detailed records kept by Jefferson. A portion of the exhibit devoted to the Hemings-Jefferson story marks the first time the subject has been presented on the National Mall. Curators stopped short of making a definitive statement in the exhibit about the relationship, but wrote that it was likely an intimate one, based on documentary and genetic evidence.

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Many artifacts from Jefferson's plantation, including tools and kitchen ceramics used by slave families, are on public view for the first time. 



Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to open in 2015. Museum director Lonnie Bunch said his staff can test ideas by building exhibits like the Jefferson one before then to see how the public responds. Slavery, he says, is still the "last great unmentionable" in public discourse but central in shaping American history.

"This is a story we know we have to tell, and this is a story we know is going to be difficult and going to be challenging, but this new museum has to tell the story," he says.