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Jefferson’s Monticello gives Sally Hemings her place in presidential history

The cellar room where Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore six of Jefferson's children, lived has been opened o the public, with an exhibition devoted to her and her family.

Monticello, the Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson.
Monticello, the Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson.Read moreJack Looney / Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello

You cannot see Thomas Jefferson's Virginia mansion, Monticello, from the small room burrowed into the ground along the south wing of his estate. When the door is closed, you can't see anything at all, because it is a windowless room, with a low ceiling and damp walls.

But this was, very likely, the room inhabited by Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore six of Jefferson's children, a woman about whom little is known, who lived her life as Jefferson's property, was considered his concubine, was a source of scandal and a political liability, and yet who might be considered the first lady to the third president of the United States if that didn't presume her relationship to Jefferson was voluntary.

Last month,  Monticello  opened that room to the public, with a small exhibition devoted to the life of Hemings and the Hemings family. Reclaiming this space, which previously had been used as a public restroom, marks the completion of a five-year plan called the Mountaintop Project, which has seen significant changes to the beloved estate of the founding father.

Using archaeology and other evidence, Monticello curators have restored Mulberry Row, where enslaved people lived and labored, and made changes (including to the wallpaper, paint, and furnishings) inside the mansion, restored the north and south wings, and opened the upstairs rooms to the public on special tours.

But symbolically and emotionally, the restoration of the Hemings room is the heart of the new interpretation of Monticello, and it makes tangible a relationship that has been controversial since rumors of "Dusky Sally" became part of American political invective in the early 19th century.

"Our goal has been to get the stories back and get the landscape back, so people understand the proximity of Jefferson's house to this community," says Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates the historical site. "People used to think, 'Oh, the slaves were down on the plantation.' No, they were right here in the middle of it."

It has been a quarter-century since Monticello began offering tours that focused on Jefferson and slavery, and over the course of that time, the public has largely come to accept what was once routinely discounted by historians: that Jefferson was the father of Hemings' children. In 2000, Monticello released a research report detailing the evidence, including DNA tests that established a direct genetic connection between descendants of Hemings and Jefferson. The work of historian Annette Gordon-Reed, including her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, has helped move the larger public to consensus on the issue, although the Monticello website comments page still attracts doubters and trolls.

But perhaps the most momentous change has been in the status of narratives, family memories, and oral histories of people who were enslaved or who descended from enslaved people. Only if you systematically discount that evidence — for instance, the memories of Sally's son Madison Hemings, who claimed Jefferson as his father in an 1873 newspaper account — can you sustain the old skepticism. With DNA evidence confirming a connection between the two lines, doubters also must posit some other male Jefferson relative who was at Monticello at precisely the intervals necessary to father Hemings's children. In short, the simplest, easiest, obvious and now all but indubitable answer to the "Hemings" question is that Jefferson was the father.

As that fact has settled into American consciousness, Monticello has been working to provide a richer sense of the complex interactions between Jefferson and the enslaved people who lived at Monticello. In 2003, they opened a restored Cook's Room and two years later the kitchen, both of them integral to the labor of enslaved people on the mountaintop. Some of the buildings of Mulberry Row, including slave cabins and workshops, have been re-created. And an extensive oral-history project, Getting Word: African-American Families of Monticello, is now in its 25th year.

Monticello historians are relatively confident that Sally Hemings lived in one of two rooms along the south wing, based on an encounter between Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph and an early biographer and other evidence. So if the room now dubbed Hemings' room isn't the "sooty" room Randolph indicated, it is of similar size and right next door to the real one. The exhibition in the space doesn't claim to be an exact reproduction of the room as Hemings would have known it but instead uses multimedia and text to give an account of her life and relationship to Jefferson.

"We've told these stories on tours for a long time," says Gary Sandling, vice president of visitor programs and visitor services. "But we needed a physical place to do that on site."

So the room has a strange status — not quite a historical artifact, not entirely a shrine, more like an architectural prod to the conscience. And at Monticello, anything architectural bears the imprint of the master in powerful ways.

Hemings' chamber was both out of sight but directly connected to the domestic life of the estate, an intermediary space between the larger slave population at Monticello and Jefferson's inner sanctum. Its re-creation allows tour guides to discuss the hierarchies that existed among enslaved families, with the Hemingses — who served in the house and were taught skilled trades — occupying a fraught rung on the social ladder, closer to Jefferson and more trusted than other families but still considered chattel.

It also gives a tangible sense of the often misunderstood difference between the "house" and the "field." Labor in the field may have been more physically demanding, but slave life in the house meant constant surveillance and service, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The mansion at Monticello has always, in some way, stacked the deck against efforts to rethink Jefferson because it so perfectly embodies the fantasy of Jefferson the nation has long cherished. Unique among the houses of the Founding Fathers, Monticello reflects an idealized sense of its owner — his learning, his taste, his sense of beauty, his engagement with the Enlightenment. His private chambers, full of books, with his writing machine, the "polygraph," on display, as well as his sleeping nook and other eccentric amenities, give a far more powerful sense of Jefferson than the Hemings room can give of Hemings.

But the inequity underneath the richness of Jefferson's intellectual world, and the relationship between these realms, is the essence of the story Monticello is trying to tell, which is about what historian Peter S. Onuf (who co-authored with Gordon-Reed the 2016 Jefferson volume Most Blessed of the Patriarchs) calls the "default patriarchy" of life at Monticello.

Jefferson, whose wife, Martha Jefferson, died well before he became president, existed at the head of an estate with a radiating sense of family connections, his own privileged family closest to him (although they lived in the smaller rooms upstairs from his extensive private suite on the ground floor), with the Hemingses on Mulberry Row and in the "southern dependency," and then other enslaved families at a further remove. But all were included in Jefferson's sense of himself and his estate, where he was at the apex of a social hierarchy that included the enslaved among his broader sense of family, as "dependents."

To the extent that he was humane in his role as patriarch — "Was he a good master?" is still the most asked question, according to Monticello tour guides — it was because he conceived of Monticello as embodying an Enlightenment ideal of stewardship. When he encouraged leniency in the discipline of enslaved men, it was because severe punishment "would destroy their value" and "degrade them in their own eyes by the whip." Rationality and efficiency were the governing ideas of the estate, just as they were the ideals for the larger governance of the nation. Sally Hemings' room wasn't in the line of sight from the stately rooms that Jefferson inhabited, and one senses that for Jefferson, the problem of slavery needed to be kept carefully out of sight when thinking about the future of the nation he had help found.

Jefferson believed that "Republicanism will be an engine of moral progress," says Onuf. Governed by the right ideals, perhaps even the problem of slavery would solve itself.

That didn't turn out to be the case. The abolition of slavery required enormous cost, and the cultivation of true equality remains an urgent project. The changes at Monticello reflect the ongoing nature of that work, reminding visitors that it wasn't just that slavery built Monticello but that it was built into Monticello, into the worldview of its master and into the nation he helped conceive.

Philip Kennicott is the art and architecture critic of the Washington Post and was previously culture critic.

Monticello: 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, Va. Driving from Philadelphia (about 250 miles), travel south on Interstate 95 until the Capital Beltway (I-495). Travel west into Virginia until exiting on I-66 west. Exit at U.S. Route 29 south, to Charlottesville.  

 Hours: Open daily, hours vary.  Admission for day pass and house tour (online discount): Adults, $26; youths (12-18), $17; children (5-11), $10; children under 5, free. Information: 434-984-9800 or