The Sally Hemings’ exhibit is the culmination of a 25-year effort to deal with the reality of slavery in the home of one of liberty’s most eloquent champions.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The room — brick-floored, plaster-walled, empty — is simple.
The life it represents was anything but.
The newly opened space at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s palatial mountaintop plantation, is presented as the living quarters of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who bore some of the founding father’s children. But it is more than an exhibit.
It’s the culmination of a 25-year effort to deal with the reality of slavery in the home of one of liberty’s most eloquent champions. The Sally Hemings room opened to the public Saturday, alongside a room dedicated to the oral histories of the descendants of slaves at Monticello, and the earliest kitchen at the house, where Hemings’ brother cooked.
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The public opening deals a final blow to two centuries of ignoring, playing down or covering up what amounted to an open secret during Jefferson’s life: his relationship with a slave that spanned nearly four decades, from his time abroad in Paris to his death.
To make the exhibit possible, curators had to wrestle with thorny questions. How to accurately portray a woman for whom no photograph exists? (The solution: casting a shadow on a wall.) How to handle the skepticism of those who remain unpersuaded by the mounting evidence that Jefferson was indeed the father of Hemings’ children? (The solution: tell the story entirely in quotes from her son Madison.)
And, thorniest of all, in an era of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo: How to describe the decadeslong sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings? Should it be described as rape?
“We really can’t know what the dynamic was,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Was it rape? Was there affection? We felt we had to present a range of views, including the most painful one.”
After a DNA test in 1998, the nonprofit foundation, which owns Monticello, determined that there was a “high probability” that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings’ children, and that he likely fathered them all. The new exhibit asserts Jefferson’s paternity as a fact.
The “Life of Sally Hemings” exhibit is perhaps the most striking example of the change that has taken place at Monticello, as the foundation has increasingly focused on highlighting the stories of Monticello’s slaves. The foundation has embarked on a multiyear, $35 million project aimed at restoring Monticello to the way it looked when Jefferson was alive. It rebuilt a slave cabin and workshops where slaves labored, and has hosted reunions there for the descendants of the enslaved population, including sleepovers. It removed a public bathroom installed in 1940s atop slave quarters.
And it is phasing out the popular “house tour” of the mansion, which made only minimal mention of slavery alongside Jefferson’s accomplishments, radically changing what is experienced by the more than 400,000 tourists who visit Monticello annually.
Thanks to a short description given by one of Jefferson’s grandsons, historians believe that Hemings lived in the slave quarters in the South Wing. But they aren’t sure which room. Curators decided to tell Hemings’ story in one of the rooms. Instead of making it a period room with objects that she might have possessed, they left it empty, projecting the words of her son Madison on the wall to tell her story.
The 1995 movie “Jefferson in Paris” imagined that Hemings and Jefferson loved each other. But no one knows how they really felt. Their sexual relationship is believed to have started in France, where slavery was outlawed. Hemings wanted to remain in Paris, where she could have been granted freedom, but she eventually returned to Virginia with Jefferson after he offered her extraordinary privileges and freedom for any children she might have, according to an account by Madison Hemings. Her six children, who were all fair-skinned and named after Jefferson’s friends, were freed when they reached adulthood.
No portrait or photograph exists of Hemings. Even her skin tone remains a mystery, and a source of controversy. Cartoons in the 18th century, which aimed to derail Jefferson’s political career, portrayed her as dark-skinned. But her father was a white plantation owner and her mother, an enslaved woman, was of mixed race. One account described Hemings as “mighty near white.” Curators at Monticello opted not to re-create a physical image of her. Instead, they project a woman’s shadow on a wall.
At a time sexual abuses by powerful men have dominated the news, curators struggled over how to describe the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson — and in particular whether to use the word “rape” in the exhibit. The foundation held conference calls and meetings with historians, board members and descendants to discuss the question.
“There are a lot of people who believe rape is too polarizing a word,” said Niya Bates, a public historian at Monticello. “But it was a conversation that we knew we could not avoid. It’s a conversation the public is already having.”
In the end, historians opted to use the word “rape” with a question mark, knowing that some would criticize them for including the word, while others would have criticized them for leaving it out.
The question is asked on a plaque on the wall outside the Hemings exhibit titled “Sex, Power and Ownership.” It spells out the power dynamic between the two: Under Virginia law, Hemings was Jefferson’s property.
Curators acknowledged the question could be difficult for some visitors to digest, especially schoolchildren. “We’re still having a little heartburn” about the placement of the plaque, Bates said.
Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, a retired historian who spent 25 years collecting oral history from the descendants of slaves at Monticello, said it remains to be seen how the public will react. “The words ‘rape’ and ‘rapist,’ what it conjures up is not a nuanced situation,” she said. “There were other relationships like theirs which were clearly love matches.”
At reunions of the descendants of Monticello’s slaves, the question of whether Jefferson is guilty of rape has sparked heated arguments.
“I really don’t think slaves had a choice,” said Rosemary Medley Ghoston, a retired hairdresser in Ohio who discovered in the 1980s, through genealogical research, that she was a descendant of Madison Hemings. “Maybe if it was not rape, it was a duty that she had to fulfill.”
But her distant cousin, Julius “Calvin” Jefferson, whom she met at a descendants’ event, feels differently.
“I think it was a love story,” he said, noting that Hemings was the half sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, whose death had devastated him. “Did she look like Martha? I think she did.”
The exhibit has divided the white descendants of Jefferson’s acknowledged family, and stoked outrage among a small but determined group of Jefferson enthusiasts who insist that he didn’t father Hemings’ children.
“The charge is an extremely serious charge against him,” said Mary Kelley, a sculptor from Chevy Chase, Maryland, who took a tour of Monticello in 2013 and was shocked by what she considered to be the guide’s negative tone about a man she has always idolized.
Afterward, she joined the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a group that was formed to dispute the growing historical consensus that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children. Now she hunts down clues about who else could have fathered Hemings’ children.
John H. Works Jr., a descendant of Jefferson’s who is among the founding members of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, accuses the nonprofit organization that runs Monticello of bowing to political correctness, and insists the entire premise of the exhibit is flawed.
But his brother, David Works, who has embraced the descendants of slaves at Monticello as “cousins,” attended a special viewing Friday to celebrate.
“They are actually showing it as it was,” he said.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a history professor at Harvard University whose book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” helped bolster Monticello’s transformation, said it would take time for people to accept the changes.
“Some people come here and say, ‘I didn’t come here, to a slave plantation, to hear about slavery,’” she said. “There’s nothing to do but keep pushing back.”