As the country slowly, surely comes to grips with its slaveholding past, one of its most iconic buildings is set to do the same.
Monticello, the estate where President Thomas Jefferson lived (immortalized on the back of our nickel), will now give the enslaved young woman and alleged “mistress” of Jefferson “a room of her own.”
The Washington Post reports that the room where historians believe Sally Hemings slept (just feet from Jefferson’s bedroom) was turned into a restroom in 1941. This was erhaps an oversight, perhaps it was done purposely.
Hemmings has always evoked a visceral response from those who would not have one of our most famous president’s legacies—the man who wrote that “all men are created equal”—besmirched by a slave girl who bore children for him.
However, the Post reports that “Hemings’s life is poised to become a larger part of the story told at Monticello,” and her space will be open to the public next year. In addition, Monticello, a 5,000-acre working plantation, will now reconstruct buildings on Mulberry Row, where the enslaved lived and worked.
Jefferson owned 607 slaves (easily worth over $2o million in today’s dollars) over the course of his life.
“Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by people, and the vast majority of those people were enslaved,” said Christa Dierksheide, a Monticello historian.
Today we do not have any historical record of how Hemings regarded her relationship with Jefferson. We know that Hemings was about 14 years old when her son alleged that her relationship with Jefferson began, supposedly in France (he was 44, and she was accompanying his daughter Maria on a 1787 trip to Paris).
But given that she was underage and he “owned” her, many say that consent is something that Hemings could not possibly have given.
The Post reports that for four decades, Jefferson kept meticulous records of every dollar he spent and the activities of the people he held as slaves—but that he rarely wrote of Hemings, a seamstress, possibly in an attempt to mask her role in his life.
Four of Hemings’ children lived to adulthood, and documentary evidence, along with genetic links found in DNA tests of Hemings’ and Jefferson’s descendants in 1998, led most historians to believe that Jefferson was their father. (Some blue-blooded deniers remain, including the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society and the Monticello Association, according to the Post.)
We do know that Jefferson freed Hemings’ children, and his family granted Hemings an unofficial freedom after Jefferson’s death.
Historians at Monticello say that with the new exhibition, they hope to give Hemings a fuller life, outside of being Jefferson’s black “mistress” or “concubine.”
“It will portray her outside of the mystery,” said Niya Bates, the foundation’s public historian of slavery and African-American life. “She was a mother, a sister, an ancestor for her descendants, and [the room’s presentation] will really just shape her as a person and give her a presence outside of the wonder of their relationship.”
“You’re in the home of the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who criticized slavery but was a slaveholder,” said Harvard law professor Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The story of Monticello is, at its core, “about the complicated nature of America’s founding,” she said.
Read more at the Washington Post.