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Posted under: News Black History

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.

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Sally Hemings is no longer an afterthought.

For decades, the Monticello estate and former plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia, formerly owned by Thomas Jefferson, has committed itself to preserve the legacy of a slaveholder and the third president of the United States.

In 1993, the estate began its "Getting Word" project which allowed the public to join them in heralding his contributions to the nation by way of tours through the estate and oral history. The tours included a retelling of the site's plantation past. But outside of his quotable sentiments which have been etched into the nation’s political fabric and his authoring of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a significant contributor to one of the cruelest aspects of the nation’s history.

The former president, who oversaw the nation between 1801 and 1809, fathered multiple children with one of the women he enslaved. Sally Hemings, born in 1773 Virginia, has often been referred to as Jefferson’s mistress by those unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the glaring implications of slavery’s power imbalance. 

But Monticello is now telling Jefferson’s full story, that which includes Hemings.

Weeks before the opening of the Sally Hemings exhibit, Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, delivered a toast atop one of Jefferson’s properties overlooking the Montalto mountaintop. Such a toast was nothing unusual given the foundation’s mission to honor Jefferson's legacy, but this particular tribute was different.
                                An aerial view of the Monticello estate. 
In a small, yet monumental gesture, Bowman paid homage to both Hemings and the man who enslaved her in the same breath. Still processing the increasing recognition of her great-great-great-great-aunt by the estate, Hemings' descendant Gayle Jessup White was taken aback by the symbolic inclusion.

“I was kind of propelled into a different zone," White, who also serves as the estate's Chief Engagement Officer, told Blavity of the moment’s significance. "A place where a person who’d been enslaved was being elevated.”

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’s family history is complex. Not only is she descended from the Jefferson lineage, she's also the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Hemings' brother, Peter.

“My white family owned my black family,” she shared. 

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

“I acknowledge, and I admire him for [creating the Declaration of Independence], so that's how I grapple with it,” she added. “The man is in my DNA."

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.

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Zahara is the Deputy Editor for Blavity.