Sally Hemings' Legacy Was Buried For Decades. Now, She's Finally Receiving The Memorial She Deserves.

The Monticello estate is finally telling the full story.

Photo Credit: Monticello Estate

| July 17 2018,

04:25 am

Bowman acknowledges that the recognition was long past due. 

"We just became a second conscience," she said. "That should have happened a long time ago."

And Charlottesville's black community may be beginning to take notice. 

"The African-American community has held Monticello at a distance for many, many, many years. All that is beginning to change," White said. "Over the past couple of years, we've begun to change that."

White resolves the emotional dissonance that yields from such complexity by remembering Jefferson’s better contributions to society.

While reconciling her ancestries may not be the easiest feat, Monticello’s exhibit on Hemings helps.

"We are changing the way Americans view history [by] telling a completely inclusive story," White added. "We are talking about a woman who was enslaved, who was ignored, who was diminished, and we are making her whole. She represents Americans who have been marginalized for hundreds of years."

"And here we are resurrecting her and the people around her and making them whole," White, who maintains close relationships with descendants of both Jefferson and Hemings, said.

Tour guides of Monticello have included several renditions of quarters in which slave families resided, but the properties in which Hemings and her family once lived were utilized as a small bathroom on the tour site for years. Last winter, the properties began to be excavated as the estate decided it was time to acknowledge and pay homage to the black woman whose legacy had otherwise been silenced for the sake of her former master's legacy. 

Now, the approximately 15 by 13-foot quarters will tell Hemings' story, as it is known, through a digital and immersive exhibit which opened to the public on June 16. Exhibit curators use a memoir from Hemings' son Madison to impart Hemings' story in a series of text, accompanied by moving silhouettes -- intended to portray Hemings and her children -- running along the walls of the room. 
The Life of Sally Hemings
The relationship between Jefferson and Hemings began while she served as his domestic slave on a two-year excursion to Paris. Although she served Jefferson while in Paris she was technically free in the French city. She was given an option to remain in France, but Jefferson urged her to return to the States. She agreed, but only under the conditions that she’d be given “extraordinary privileges,” and her future children would no longer be enslaved when they turned 21 years old. Jefferson did as promised and Hemings was able to witness her children liberated from slavery once they turned 21 years old.

Of the six children she had by Jefferson, two died during their infancy.  The four which lived were named Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston. Her older sons were able to pass as white once they were freed per she and Jefferson;'s agreement. Upon Jefferson's death in 1826, his will would become their official marker of liberation. Little contact was had between the sons and their mother following their being freed. Upon gaining freedom, Madison moved to Ohio and became a carpenter and farmer. 
A portrait of Madison Hemings. 

According to Monticello, Hemings never discussed her own liberation with Jefferson. She lived unofficially free in Charlottesville once Jefferson died until her own death in 1835. She was around 62 years old. 

When learning of Jefferson, the hundreds of thousands who descend upon the Monticello estate for tours each year will now have no choice but to learn of Hemings' legacy. For history lovers and students, the telling of Jefferson's sexual relationship with the woman he enslaved will be imparted in the same span of hours in which his most memorable declaration that all human beings have the "right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is iterated. 

           Hundreds of descendants of slaves were invited by the estate to attend the exhibit's opening.

Historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who authored Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, captured coming impact of the shift in the retelling of Jefferson's legacy perfectly: 

"Someone once came up to me and said, 'I never thought of Jefferson as a slaveholder.' [But] you can't talk about him now without talking about black people. You cannot do that with him, anymore." 

Upon learning of Hemings’ life as it intertwined with that of Jefferson’s, it becomes apparent as to why her backstory was averted for so long. Jefferson impregnated Hemings at least six times beginning in her teenage years. (Throughout the 1800s, the legal age of consent ranged between just 10 and 12 years old.) She was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, as the two shared the same father. Additionally, Jefferson's contradictory perspectives on slavery as imparted on a tour of Jefferson's former home, implied an awareness regarding the inhumanity of his slaveholding deeds. 

The man who coined the phrase "all men are created equal" was thus one of the earliest to prove its falsehood. As recounted by Manager of Special Programs at Monticello Brandon Dillard, Jefferson believed black people were generally inferior creatures who couldn't fend for themselves and therefore, dependent upon enslavement for their survival. In addition to believing that slavery was a noble moral choice made by slaveholders , he also believed that the injustices of slavery would prevent white and black people from peacefully coexisting because of the evils they have done. 

Little is known about the nature of Hemings and Jefferson's relationship outside of it having been a sexual one. Outside of the knowledge that she was a seamstress believed to be fairer-skinned and described as handsome,  information on Hemings outside of her relation to Jefferson is also scant.There are presently no known photos or portraits of her.

But the extent of the information offered at the Hemings exhibit is of lesser importance. It’s the recognition, although long overdue, and its impact on future historical retellings, which matters. 

"This is an end, not a beginning," White said.