After decades of hiding Jefferson’s relationship, Monticello is making room for #SallyHemings. @washingtonpost https://t.co/lXo1IUxh3x pic.twitter.com/FybEbshFfD
— James Hemings FDN (@jameshemingsorg) February 20, 2017
The news of slave owners raping or carrying on full—not entirely consensual relationships with their slaves is not exactly a surprise to Black folk. But it’s a history many Americans conveniently choose to ignore. Historians have made it easier by simply ignoring the more “unpleasant” realities of the institution of slavery.
But things are changing. And the evidence of these changes can be seen in the renovations being made to Thomas Jefferson’s famous mansion-now tourist attraction, Monticello.
According to The Washington Post, the room historians believe belonged to Sally Hemmings, the mother of Thomas Jefferson’s six children, will be added to the Monticello mansion and included in the tour. The room, just steps away from Jefferson’s bedroom was turned into a restroom in 1941 by caretakers.
The relationship between Hemings and Jefferson was denied for decades by his White descendants. Today, many historians believe Jefferson was the father to Hemings’ children. The renovations, including removing the floor tiles and the room is in the process of being restored. Hemings’ room will be open for public viewing next year. But the room won’t be the only change made on the property or the way Jefferson’s contradictory story is told.
The renovation also includes a $35 million project that will reconstruct and showcase buildings where enslaved people worked.
Throughout the course of his life, though he wrote the words “all men are created equal,” Jefferson owned a 5,000-acre plantation that was the home to 607 slaves throughout his life.
Monticello historian, Christa Dierksheide, said, “Visitors will come here and understand that there was no place on this mountaintop that slavery wasn’t. Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by people, and the vast majority of those people were enslaved.”
In order to pinpoint the room historians believe belonged to Hemings, they relied on descriptions from Jefferson’s grandson who placed it in the home’s south wing. Archaeologists are now peeling back layers in the room to reveal the original brick floor and plaster walls.
Despite the detailed notes Jefferson took, recording every dollar he spent and the activities of the people he enslaved, he rarely mentioned Hemings. There are no photographs of her. Historians know that she was a seamstress who worked as Jefferson’s chambermaid. When Jefferson inherited her from his father-in-law, she was a baby.
In 1787, when she was 14, Jefferson had Hemings travel with his young daughter Maria to Paris where he was negotiating trade agreements. According to Hemings’ son, the romantic relationship began during that trip. Four of Hemings’ six children lived to adulthood and DNA tests of Hemings and Jefferson’s descendants lead most historians to believe that Jefferson was their father.
Jefferson allowed their children together to live free and his family granted Hemings unofficial freedom after his death.
Historians hope that the reconstruction of Hemings’ room will help to paint a more complete picture of her life.
Hemings’ space will feature period furniture and artifacts like bone toothbrushes and other ceramics found on the property.
Gary Sandling, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation said, “Sally Hemings was better traveled than most Americans, so we want to tell a story about her that doesn’t limit her to Jefferson’s property.”
The push to bring Hemings’ story to Monticello is the result of a decades-long effort from a now-retired historian Lucia “Cinder” Stanton. Stanton began working at Monticello in 1968 and remembered that very little was said about Hemings. A tour guide might have mentioned Hemings’ brother but “Sally” was never uttered.
In 1993, when Monticello celebrated its 250th anniversary, guides began giving the “Plantation Community” tour which incorporated stories of the enslaved people who lived there.
Stanton and her colleagues interviewed more than 100 descendants of the people enslaved at Monticello.
Stanton said, “Once you start to look at the details of the whole scene at Monticello—work, family, life, punishment— it is richer. It is so much better to try and see something whole.”
Niya Bates, the foundation’s public historian of slavery and African American life said, “It will portray her outside of the mystery. 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.”
Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.” You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @VDubShrug.