CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The room where historians believe Sally Hemings slept was just steps away from Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom. But in 1941, the caretakers of Monticello turned it into a restroom.
The floor tiles and bathroom stalls covered over the story of the enslaved woman, who was owned by Jefferson and had a long-term relationship with him. Their liaison was a scandal during his life and was denied for decades by his descendants. But many historians now believe the third president of the United States was the father of her six children.
Time, and perhaps shame, erased all physical evidence of her presence at Jefferson’s home here, a building so famous that it is depicted on the back of the nickel.
Now the floor tiles have been pulled up and the room is under restoration – and Hemings’s life is poised to become a larger part of the story told at Monticello.
When the long-hidden space opens to the public next year, it will mark a dramatic shift in the way one of the nation’s most revered Founding Fathers is portrayed to the more than 440,000 visitors who tour this landmark annually.
It’s part of a $35 million restoration project that will bolster Monticello’s infrastructure but also reconstruct and showcase buildings where enslaved people lived and worked. The man who wrote the words “all men are created equal” in 1776 was master of a 5,000-acre working plantation who over the course of his life owned 607 slaves.
“Visitors will come up here and understand that there was no place on this mountaintop that slavery wasn’t,” said Christa Dierksheide, a Monticello historian. “Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by people, and the vast majority of those people were enslaved.”
When Jefferson’s critics wrote salacious stories in the early 1800s alleging that the widowed politician had a long-term liaison with one of these slaves, it was said that he kept her “in a room of her own” at Monticello.
To pinpoint that room, historians relied on a description provided long ago by a Jefferson grandson, who placed it in the home’s south wing. Archaeologists are now peeling back layers in the 14 foot, 8 inch-by-13 foot, 2 inch room to reveal its original brick floor and plaster walls.
Historians do not know exactly how old Hemings was when she lived there, and no portraits or photographs of her exist. But step into the brick room, the floor still covered in red dirt, and it is not hard to imagine her sitting in a chair, warming herself in front of the fireplace.
For four decades, Jefferson kept meticulous records of every dollar he spent and the activities of the people he held as slaves – the fee for hiring a midwife to birth an enslaved woman’s child, the cost of sending someone on an errand. But Jefferson rarely wrote of Hemings, possibly in an attempt to cloak her role in his life.
Historians know that she was a seamstress and worked for a time as Jefferson’s chambermaid. She was a baby when Jefferson inherited the Hemings family from his father-in-law, a major slaveholder.
In 1787, when she was 14, Jefferson had Hemings accompany his young daughter Maria to Paris, where he was an envoy negotiating trade agreements. According to accounts from Hemings’ son Madison, their personal relationship began in France.
Four of Hemings’ children lived to adulthood, and documentary evidence, along with genetic links found in DNA tests of Hemings and Jefferson descendants in 1998, led most historians to believe that Jefferson was their father. (Some skepticism about their paternity remains within two organizations with ties to some branches of Jefferson’s family – the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society and the Monticello Association, which owns the cemetery where Jefferson is buried.)
Jefferson allowed these children to live free, and his family granted Sally Hemings an unofficial freedom after Jefferson’s death.
Monticello historians hope the restored room will humanize the image of Hemings, beyond the gossipy old accounts of Jefferson’s so-called “concubine.”
“Sally Hemings was better traveled than most Americans, so we want to tell a story about her that doesn’t limit her to Jefferson’s property,” said Gary Sandling, a vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and runs Monticello as a museum.
Her space will be outfitted with period furniture and artifacts, such as bone toothbrushes and ceramics excavated on the property.
“It will portray her outside of the mystery,” said Niya Bates, the foundation’s public historian of slavery and African-American life. “She was a mother, a sister, an ancestor for her descendants, and (the room’s presentation) will really just shape her as a person and give her a presence outside of the wonder of their relationship.”
Hemings’s new prominence at Monticello is part of a decades-long shift. Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, a now-retired historian who began working there in 1968, recalled when little was said about the Hemings family. A tour guide might mention that Sally’s brother John was a talented woodworker, who likely made some of the furniture in the house – but Sally’s name was never uttered.
In 1993, as Monticello celebrated the 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, guides began giving a “Plantation Community” tour that incorporated stories of the enslaved. But little remained of Mulberry Row, where the slaves worked.
At its height, the complex just 200 feet from Jefferson’s house bustled with more than 20 workshops, sheds and dwellings. Enslaved teenagers wove textiles and forged nails there. But by the end of the 19th century, nearly all the buildings on Mulberry Row had been torn down; the space later became a parking lot. Down the mountain, the farms where field slaves grew tobacco and wheat became overgrown.
Stanton and her colleagues sought to recreate this lost world via an oral history project, interviewing more than 100 descendants of Monticello’s enslaved people and collecting images of those ancestors.
“Once you start to look at the details of the whole scene at Monticello – work, family life, punishment – it is richer,” said Stanton, who wrote a book about slavery on the plantation. “It is so much better to try to see something whole.”
The restoration comes as many artists and scholars are taking a closer look at contradictions of Jefferson’s life that made previous generations uncomfortable.
“You’re in the home of the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who criticized slavery but was a slaveholder,” said Harvard law professor Annette Gordon-Reed, author of “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.” The story of Monticello is at its core “about the complicated nature of America’s founding,” she said.
The hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” portrayed Jefferson not as a heroic figure but as deeply flawed, even a bit of a hypocrite. The Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture presents a statue of Jefferson under his eloquent words about the equality of mankind – but surrounded by towers of bricks, each etched with the name of a man or woman he owned.
His is not the only legacy being re-evaluated. A new book highlights George Washington’s “relentless pursuit” of a runaway slave. Yale University has said it will remove John C. Calhoun’s name from a residential college because of the Southern leader’s ardent promotion of slavery. Georgetown University has apologized for once owning slaves and plans to offer admissions preference to descendants of those sold for the benefit of the school.
And other historic plantations are recasting their exhibits to reflect a crueler truth “beyond the sort of old moonlight-and-magnolia plantation tour,” said Joshua Rothman, chair of the history department at the University of Alabama. “Talking about the history of the enslaved community is one thing, but recreating that space and trying to give it material substance takes it really to another level.”
At Monticello’s Mulberry Row, a rebuilt slave cabin has been staged as a space where John Hemmings (Sally’s brother spelled his name with two M’s) might have lived with his wife, Priscilla. An iron workshop has been reconstructed and a textile shop is being restored. The stables will soon be opened to highlight the men who cared for Jefferson’s prized horses.
Leslie Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, raised about $20 million of the funding for these projects from David Rubenstein, the private-equity billionaire and philanthropist who has a particular interest in Mulberry Row.
“If you are going to get people to come to historic sites, you should show them what it was really like,” said Rubenstein, who has also underwritten renovations to the slave quarters at Arlington’s Custis-Lee Mansion and James Madison’s Montpelier. “The good and bad of history.”
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Monticello remains a showpiece of neoclassical architectural, so leaders are wary of adding too much to the landscape. But new multimedia exhibits and a mobile phone app will help trace the lives of the people who labored there.
Last year, Monticello hosted a conference on slavery and freedom with the help of the Values Partnership Initiative, headed by Joshua DuBois, a faith adviser to the Obama White House. The group is also bringing in students from schools named for Jefferson, many of which have large minority populations, to discuss his legacy.
DuBois hopes Monticello can be “a place of reflection, a place to remind us of our resiliency, also to mourn to some extent.” After all, when Jefferson died, 130 people were sold at an auction block on the west lawn to pay his debts.
Among the first visitors to see the restorations of Mulberry Row was Bill Webb, a New Yorker whose great-great-great-grandfather Brown Colbert was born at Monticello on Christmas Day in 1785.
The visit “was a heavy experience,” said Webb, whose ancestor pounded out nails here. “It is a painful part of our American history. But it needs to be told.”
Video: For more than 50 years The Thomas Jefferson Foundation has been working to incorporate the story on the enslaved community on Jefferson’s plantation. (Ashleigh Joplin / The Washington Post)