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Visitors have long come to Monticello to see and admire Thomas Jefferson's mansion, but a new silhouette and exhibition bring a largely hidden life into the open. No portrait exists of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had a decades-long relationship with Jefferson and bore him six children, but the public can now learn the contours of her story. Jeffrey Brown reports.
A new chapter has recently been added to the story of one of America's most historic leaders.
Jeffrey Brown visits Thomas Jefferson's home and explains how a visit through the past now brings with it an updated understanding.
It's the latest in our Race Matters series.
Sally Hemings, no portrait exists, so we don't know what she looked like.
But now this silhouette and a new exhibition here at Monticello bring a largely hidden story into the open and make a definitive public statement about her decades-long relationship with Thomas Jefferson, the man who owned her and this plantation.
Niya Bates is Monticello's public historian of slavery and African-American life.
We, as Americans, don't address some of the more complex issues of slavery, of sex, of power, of ownership. And that is what is really interesting about Sally Hemings and her story
We want people to see now that Sally Hemings is a real person and that she had a real legacy.
Monticello, built between 1768 and 1808 in Charlottesville, Virginia, was home to Jefferson, third president of the United States, writer of the Declaration of Independence, enlightenment thinker, and slave owner of more than 600 people.
Visitors have long come here to see and admire his mansion and its many wonders. The first tour to focus on the enslaved people here only began in 1993.
But over the last several decades, Monticello has slowly expanded the story beyond Jefferson, through research and archaeological work, to include the vast majority of those who lived and worked here.
At a site about a half-mile from the main house, students in a summer program dug trenches, sifted dirt, and found ceramics, nails, and other artifacts of slave life.
Fraser Neiman is Monticello's Director of archaeology.
It's kind of the undeniable physical remains of the people who were the vast majority of residents here.
They didn't leave behind the tens of thousands of letters that Jefferson did, but they did leave behind thousands of pieces of trash and artifacts that we can begin to learn a little bit more about.
The restoration of Mulberry Row beginning in 2011 opened a window onto the workplaces and houses of enslaved artisans and domestic workers.
Leslie Greene Bowman:
I think Monticello is a microcosm of the American story, right? How willing have the American people been to acknowledge slavery as their history and not someone else's history?
Leslie Greene Bowman is president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. In 2000, Monticello published a report on DNA and other evidence of Jefferson's paternity of Hemings' six children, four of whom survived to adulthood.
That and work by leading scholars helped bring public acceptance. Some doubters remain, but experts and Monticello itself now consider this a settled matter.
Monticello says that he's the father of her children.
This summer the foundation opened six new exhibits, including the plantation's first kitchen.
The archaeology uncovered a stew stove of the kind Jefferson found and admired in Paris, where he served as U.S. ambassador to France in the 1780s. Sally's brother, James Hemings, was trained in French cooking in Paris and used the stove here at Monticello.
But the main new addition in what until now was a public restroom for visitors is a display on the life of Sally Hemings in one of the two rooms researchers now believe she lived in.
Part of her story is told in the words of her son Madison who gave an oral history of life at Monticello in 1873. Sally Hemings was just 13 or 14 years old when she went to Paris as a maidservant, and the relationship with Jefferson, then 43, began.
When Jefferson returned home, she could have stayed in Paris as a free woman, but negotiated terms for returning to Monticello, that her future children would be freed at age 21.
What we have been trying to do here is to give our visitors everything that we know. We have given the basic biography, her birthday, her death day, the days that she was in Paris, what she was doing, the type of work, where she lived.
But we have also been able to have some of those more complex conversations, again, about the nature of the relationship. Was it consensual? Was it love? We don't actually know the answer to the question.
Outside the room, a plaque asks, without answering, "Was it rape?"
Oh, it absolutely had to be asked. There's no way that we could talk about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson and not talk about the power dynamic between the two of them. He did own her. And it wouldn't be acceptable for us to tell this story and not address that power imbalance.
An oral history project called Getting Word has been another key part of the new effort here, bringing in descendants of the Hemings and other enslaved families.
Seventy-year-old Diana Redman is a direct descendent of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.
Andrew Davenport, 28, is the great-great-great-great grandson of Sally's brother Peter.
When I look around Monticello, I see the labors of the enslaved community and what they were able to do. Jefferson might have had the vision, but the enslaved community operated, acted upon that vision and built this edifice.
We had been part of everything that is Monticello. Knowing that I had enslaved relatives who were here who were involved in the carpentry, who were involved in the cooking and the gardening and the nailery, this is where my ancestors lived and labored. So, that gave a — it made it feel different for me.
Can you describe the difference? What did you feel?
I won't say it was a sense of ownership. It was a sense of being.
A sense of being?
Yes, being where my ancestors had been before me gave me that sense of, OK, we're part of this country, we're part of this growth, we're part of a bigger picture, and I can lay hands on things that they did.
It's my identity. Surely, I'm white as well, but this is part of our story.
And I would be denying a significant part of my history and our history if I didn't own up to the fact that, yes, I may pass as a white man or whatever you see in me — that's up to you — but I have to identify as having African-American history, and this is my story.
How do you see both the injustices to and the contributions of your ancestors who were here?
That's the hope, that we can begin to share these stories with the wider world, so that we understand, regardless of the institution of slavery, individuals thrived, personally, within their sphere. And they made life and love here, too. So this is as complex as it gets.
What about when you actually walk in that room?
Well, I see the image, and I would love to know what she looked like. But that's not meant to be. And I think that's a sadness, but that's a sadness for many descendants of enslaved families.
Monticello officials are also hoping the new exhibits will help attract Americans of all races to view their common history.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.
And, online, we have an extended conversation with the Monticello descendants we featured in our story there. That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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