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Chronicles of Monticello's slave families reveal other side of Thomas Jefferson

From the exhibit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2013: Thomas Jefferson’s convoluted and complicated history as a slave owner – while long espousing opposition to the institution -- goes well beyond his likely 30-plus-year liaison with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

That fact is made clear in the newest exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.”

The exhibit offers a candid look at slavery at Monticello, Jefferson’s homestead in Virginia, by zeroing in on the widely different – but equally compelling – experiences of six slave families. Most of them spent decades working for the visionary man who was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia and the nation’s third president.

Although Jefferson espoused liberty for all, he also owned 600 people during his lifetime. And he freed few of them, despite his early writings in which he proposed various ways for the nation – and for himself – to "extricate" itself from a poisonous reliance on slaves.

Several hundred artifacts are on display at the free exhibit, which continues through March 2. But arguably the most compelling segment features video from some of the slaves’ descendants, black and white, who tell their families’ stories.

“This exhibit puts a face on slavery,” said Susan Stein, Monticello’s senior curator and vice president of museum programs. “When most people imagine slavery, they think of cotton plantations in Alabama in the mid-19th century. This is about a different era. It allows people to really understand, really see what the lives of enslaved people were really about.”

For example: In 1790, about 20 percent of the population of the fledgling United States was enslaved. That figure reached 40 percent – 293,000 people – in Virginia, the home state of four of the nation’s first five presidents, including Jefferson. All four of those Virginians owned slaves.

“When you understand how pervasive it was, you have a different understanding of American history,” Stein said.

Take, for example, another key fact from the late 1700s: Because of racial mixing, voluntary and forced, many slaves bridged the color lines – especially in the decades before strict segregation practices were put in place in the mid-1800s.

Among the results: Some descendants from Monticello’s slave families served in black – and white – regiments during the Civil War in the 1860s.

Stein is scheduled to present a public lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the History Museum, in which she will focus on the exhibit, its displays and its message. An expert on Jefferson and an author, she has been at Monticello since the early 1980s.

The exhibit is a joint project of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Financial support was provided by the History Channel and the National Endowment for Humanities.

"At the Missouri History Museum we are always looking for the best exhibits from around the country that we can bring to the people of our area," said Jody Sowell, director of the museum's exhibitions and research.

"Of course, there are few locations that are more appropriate for this exhibit. The older part of our museum, The Jefferson Memorial Building, was the first national monument to the third president."

Sowell added,"Slavery at Monticello, like all great exhibits, is a reminder that history is never simple, and it's the complexities of the past that are so fascinating. This exhibit doesn't treat Jefferson as a hero like so many of our textbooks did, but it also doesn't treat him like a villain. Instead, it treats him and the people he enslaved as complex people living in complex times."

Hemingses' strong blood ties to Jefferson

The story of the Hemings family illustrates many of the contradictions in the institution of slavery and in Jefferson’s widely varied behavior toward his slaves.

Elizabeth Hemings, the matriarch of the enslaved family that became most prominent at Monticello, was born in 1735 as the biracial daughter of an African woman and a white ship captain – likely the man in charge of the slave ship that had transported the woman across the Atlantic.

The captain, whose name was Hemings, tried and failed to purchase the woman and her daughter Elizabeth from their slave owner. Because the captain acknowledged his paternity, the child was given his last name of Hemings.

Elizabeth Hemings subsequently became the property of prominent planter John Wayles, the father of Jefferson’s eventual wife, Martha Wayles. After John Wayles buried three wives, including Martha’s mother, he began a relationship with Elizabeth Hemings that is believed to have produced six children, including Sally.

Sally was an infant when John Wayles died. Wayles' will gave ownership of the entire Hemings family to his daughter – by then Jefferson’s wife – who brought all of them to Monticello. 

In effect, Martha Wayles Jefferson was the owner of her stepmother and six half-brothers and sisters. She was believed to be close to many of them.

After his wife's early death in 1782, Thomas Jefferson continued what Stein and other historians agree was an unusual relationship with the Hemings’ family. Over his lifetime, at least 70 members of the enslaved family worked at Monticello. Most worked in the house or as skilled artisans. Many could read and write.

Several of Sally Hemings’ brothers were given unusual freedom and latitude. Robert and James Hemings often traveled alone wherever they pleased, were paid salaries and could hire themselves out – and keep the money they earned. The one requirement: They had to be at Monticello when Jefferson wanted them there and to accompany him on travels when he required it. (James Hemings was with Jefferson during his five years in Paris.)

Jefferson eventually freed both men, under complicated circumstances, but he wasn’t happy about it – and apparently felt that they failed to show adequate gratitude for what he viewed as benevolent treatment. Subsequent generations of Hemingses, and other slaves, had less freedom of movement.

James Hemings, trained as a French chef, killed himself a few years after gaining his freedom. His suicide took place shortly after Hemings and Jefferson had haggled in writing, via an intermediary, over Jefferson's efforts to persuade Hemings to become the White House chef in 1801.

Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings apparently began when she was a young teenager and accompanied one of his young daughters to France in 1787.

(Jefferson had expected an older woman, free or slave, to make the trip and didn’t know about Sally until Abigail Adams picked the girls up at the dock in London and wrote him. Reading between the lines of her letters, one gets the sense that Adams had concerns about the situation from the get-go, knowing that Jefferson was in his mid-40s and had been a widower for several years.)

Almost 20 years later, when allegations about the relationship showed up in print before and during Jefferson’s presidency, Sally Hemings became the most famous slave in the country, wrote Annette Gordon-Read, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Hemingses of Monticello.”

Some of the nastiest public commentary about the Jefferson-Hemings allegations was written by Adams' eldest son, John Quincy Adams.

Scientific testing puts some controversy to rest

DNA testing more than a decade ago, coupled with other evidence, has prompted most scholars to conclude that Jefferson was likely the father of Sally Hemings’ children, four of whom reached adulthood.

All were freed by the time they reached 21, or when Jefferson died in 1826. Three of the four lived their adult lives as whites. 

Not all Jefferson historians agree that he was the father of Hemings' children, prompting their differing conclusions to also be posted on the Monticello website. However, DNA testing has ruled out some Jefferson relatives initially identified by some family members.

In any case, Stein emphasizes that Monticello’s slave history was about far more than the Hemingses, although the family – which became entwined with several others – represented the largest bloc of Jefferson’s slave holdings.

Isaac Granger Jefferson
Credit University of Virginia
Isaac Granger Jefferson

The exhibit also relates the experiences of the Grangers(another influential family at Monticello), the Fossetts (connected to the Hemingses), the Gillettes,the Hern family, and the Hubbard brothers.

Their lives, even at Monticello, were far different. Some families held prominent roles and gained Jefferson’s respect. But several slaves, even from well-connected families, ran away because of mistreatment by some of his overseers.

Jefferson’s death did away with any preferential treatment. Only a handful of slaves, including Sally Hemings’ remaining two children, were freed in his will. Joseph Fossett, who ran Jefferson’s ironworks, was freed – but not his family.

Six months after Jefferson’s death, 130 slaves – including many remaining members of the Hemings’ clan – were sold when the family sold off Monticello and most of its furnishings to pay off Jefferson's massive debt.

One of the most heart-wrenching tales is of Joseph Fossett, who spent much of his life after Jefferson died raising enough money to buy his wife and most of his children from various slave owners.

Sally Hemings wasn’t freed but Jefferson's heirs allowed her to move away to reside with two sons until she died in 1835. At least one census-taker during that period listed her as “white.”

The first written account of the family’s experiences came from son Madison Hemings, who was interviewed by a reporter in the 1870s. A photo of another Sally Hemings son, Eston Hemings, is in the exhibition.

In 1993, said Stein, Monticello began a massive project – still underway – to locate the descendants of the 600 people whom Jefferson owned. So far, about 180 descendants have been interviewed.  Many have had fascinating stories to tell.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.