Jefferson’s controversial relationship emerges in exhibit
In June, I traveled to Virginia and visited Monticello, the ancestral home of Thomas Jefferson, our third president. Since my last visit in 2003 some things had changed. The most significant change being Monticello’s exhibit, which opened in 2018, acknowledging Jefferson’s relationship with a female slave he had owned named Sally Hemings.
In my 20s, I became friends with Barbara McLaughlin, who worked as a tour guide at Monticello until she was fired.
Her infraction? Making one too many references to Sally Hemings’ relationship to Jefferson to tour guests.
McLaughlin told me that Thomas Jefferson had begun a relationship with Hemings after his wife, Martha Jefferson, died, and Hemings had given birth to children by Jefferson. In addition, McLaughlin said that Hemings was the biological half sister of Martha Jefferson.
However, until recently, this version of history was kept in the shadows.
But when I visited Monticello in June — all of that had changed.
My guided tour of the home began with the guide’s acknowledgement of this.
Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. …”
Despite these words, the tour guide at Monticello said Jefferson had fathered the children of Sally Hemings — six in all.
The matter is out of the shadows these days, and Monticello has an exhibit about Sally Hemings’ life.
The Monticello website, states: “This is a painful and complicated American story. Thomas Jefferson was one of our most important founding fathers, and also a lifelong slave owner who held Sally Hemings and their children in bondage. Sally Hemings should be known today, not just as Jefferson’s concubine, but as an enslaved woman who — at the age of 16 — negotiated with one of the most powerful men in the nation to improve her own condition and achieve freedom for her children.”
The Hemings exhibit is located in one of the rooms of Monticello’s South Wing in a small, unlit empty room and a mannequin wearing a muslin dress.
A visual presentation accompanied by a haunting melody began with birds and flowers being superimposed on the white dress and the words of her son, Madison Hemings, from letters in the book “Life Among the Lowley,” published in 1873.
“She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free,” Madison Hemings wrote. “Such is the story that comes down to me. …”
At this point the birds and flowers disappeared, the sound of waves, and a map of the North American continent and Europe appeared with these words: “In 1787, Thomas Jefferson sent for his younger daughter Maria to join him in Paris. His relatives chose Sally Hemings to accompany Maria as her maid-servant. Sally was 13 or 14 years old She stayed in France for two and a half years.
“He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred,” Madison Hemings wrote. The sound of several women speaking could be heard along with somber music. The birds and flowers reappeared on the screen and over the muslin dress. The birds moved their wings slowly. A bell rang in the background.
“She was just beginning to understand the French language well and in France she was free.
“To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. At this point, the bird and flower pattern was reduced to the shape of a jacket superimposed on the top half of the muslin dress.
“In consequence of his promises on which she implicitly relied, she returned to Virginia. Soon after her arrival, she gave birth to a child of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. It lived but a short time.”
Then, the jacket became a solid, drab tan. Next to this a moving silhouette of a mother and child and three other children walked.
“She gave birth to four others and Jefferson was the father of all of them,” Hemings wrote.
Silhouettes of children playing instruments and sheet music appeared.
Next, were the words that struck my heart and brought tears to my eyes, “… He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children. We were the only children of his by a slave woman.”
The children were allowed to be with their mother, he wrote, but worked as slaves in carpentry and factory work. Their mother took care of Jefferson’s bedroom, wardrobe and did light work, such as sewing.
The four children were freed at the age of 21 per “the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born,” he wrote. “We have all married and raised families.”
At this point the jacket became the bird and flower print again and the birds flew off the jacket.
The exhibit concluded with this — Jefferson owned 607 slaves; he only freed seven and let three others leave Monticello.
“They were all members of the extended Hemings family. Four were his children,” Hemings wrote. “Sally Hemings was ‘given her time’ after Jefferson’s death but never legally freed.”
The visual exhibit presentation can be viewed on Monticello’s website.