- Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
"My mother became Mr. Jefferson's concubine," Madison Hemings told a newspaper reporter in 1873, referring to his enslaved mother, Sarah "Sally" Hemings, and his father, Thomas Jefferson. For many years, historians were unaware of this interview or ignored it along with other evidence that gave credence to the eighteenth-century story. Today, in the twenty-first century, Madison shares his family's tale through a type of augmented reality exhibit at Monticello—Jefferson's plantation estate and historical landmark.1
The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit, which opened in June 2018, presents Madison's words, projected in light, within the confines of a small cellar room under the south wing of Jefferson's Renaissance-inspired plantation mansion. In the dark room with brick-layered floors and matching fireplace, Madison's words narrate key portions of his mother's and siblings' stories. Those who run the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which was established in 1923, make clear that awareness of the multifaceted connection between Sally Hemings and the third president of the United States is essential to understanding Jefferson and the nation's history. Formerly, many at the foundation had denied the possibility that Jefferson could have fathered Hemings's children, but over the past twenty-five years members have charted a new direction by encouraging people to "look closer" at the plantation estate and the Jefferson–Hemings story.2
The connection between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson is an American story that represents the critical nuances, contradictions, and complexities within US slavery. How could the primary author of the Declaration of Independence hold in bondage hundreds of human beings, including several of his own children and their mother? How could a nation founded in freedom also hold 20 percent of its population in bondage? In short, Monticello encapsulates the US paradox of liberty and bondage—a contradiction that runs through the nation's history and leaves a legacy that we must continue to grapple with today. [End Page 247]
A History of Denial
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, battles over what versions of history should be taught have sparked contentious debates about what information is most relevant to the field of American studies. Disagreements over history are nothing new, and the Jefferson–Hemings controversy has been one of the most famously debated chronicles in US history. The truth behind the paternity of Hemings's children and the naming of Jefferson as their father has been an area of contention and denial in the United States for over two hundred years. The extent of this historical debate requires no repetition here, for Annette Gordon-Reed's Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy adeptly addresses the history of denial behind the Jefferson–Hemings connection. The book was first published in 1997, the year before DNA evidence proved that Sally's descendants were related to a male Jefferson. Science, along with documentary evidence, ultimately show that Jefferson fathered her children. "There are," writes Gordon-Reed, "many things that have been designated historical truths on the basis of far less evidence."3
The general consensus among historians now agrees with Madison Hemings's version of the relationship between his mother and father, and the evidence existed long before DNA testing. Shortly after Madison's account became public in 1873, Israel Jefferson—an unrelated slave and personal servant to Thomas Jefferson—also confirmed that Sally Hemings was the "concubine" of his former master. He squarely placed the parentage of Beverley, Harriet, Madison, and Eston on the author of the Declaration of Independence.4
When historians rediscovered the Madison Hemings and Isaac Jefferson newspaper interviews in the 1950s, many Euro-Americans rejected the claims and attacked the validity of these accounts simply because they came from formerly enslaved African Americans. After midcentury, Monticello tour guides were usually Euro-American women, and they refuted guests who mentioned Sally Hemings and brought up any intimate connection with Jefferson. The guides dismissed the accusations as false and brushed them off as gossip and political slander. While the way the African American men—who led...