As founder of the University of Virginia, architect of Monticello, third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson’s name is synonymous with the Fourth of July. While these are some of the things that made Jefferson a household name, he is also known for being an avid plantsman, with a legendary garden spanning 1,000 feet. To give you reference, a football field is 300 feet long. Clearly, Jefferson wasn’t playing games when it came to his vegetables, and an enslaved black man named Wormley Hughes was head of it all.

According to Monticello.org, Hughes was born at Monticello in March 1781 and listed as a “door-yard servant.” It is believed he may have been trained by Scottish gardener Robert Bailey, who worked at Monticello between the years 1794 and 1796. Jefferson’s daughter Ellen recalled Hughes being “armed with a spade and a hoe.” As a man of many skills and principal gardener, he planted seeds, bulbs and trees sent back from Washington, D.C. Hughes also laid out the oval flower beds and spread dung in the vegetable garden. When challenged, Hughes was known to say, “I am in no wise discouraged” — a prophetic statement, as he was instrumental in the landscaping of Monticello and Jefferson’s other properties.   

Freedom came to many Americans on July 4, 1776, but it didn’t come for the millions of enslaved descendants of Africans until 89 years later on June 19, 1865. That day, now known as Juneteenth, is when the abolition of slavery was announced by Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas — a full two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. 

Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was none other than Wormley Hughes who dug Jefferson’s grave.

Abra Lee is a horticulturist extraordinaire and unapologetically passionate about all things gardening. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @conquerthesoil. 

Recommended for you