Sally Hemings Descendants Visit New Exhibit: ‘We Knew Our Story Was Real’ | Community Idea Stations

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Sally Hemings Descendants Visit New Exhibit: ‘We Knew Our Story Was Real’

For the past 25 years, Monticello has been gathering accounts from descendants of the people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. Those stories, along with other restorations and a new exhibit on Sally Hemings, reveal a fuller story about slavery, freedom and the complicated history of the nation’s third president. WCVE’s Hawes Spencer has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Listen to oral histories collected through the Getting Word initiative and find details about Monticello’s Mountaintop Project.

Transcript:

Monticello’s “Mountaintop Project” aims to tell a more authentic story of Jefferson’s 5,000-acre plantation and the experiences of those enslaved here.

Shannon LaNier: He owned his family; he owned my family.

Shannon LaNier joined about 300 other descendants for Monticello’s largest reunion to date.

LaNier: I remember going to school in first grade and telling everyone that Thomas Jefferson was my great, great, great, great, great great grandfather and the teacher saying, 'Sit down, and stop telling lies.' Of course, everybody laughed.

Generations of families have passed down stories about Monticello, including descendants of Sally Hemings. She was enslaved by Jefferson and gave birth to at least six of his children. But there was little written documentation, says Niya Bates, public historian for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Niya Bates: We didn't have any recollections from Sally Hemings, and we didn't have any writings from Thomas Jefferson about the nature of their relationship.

What they did have was a short memoir left by her son Madison.

Bates: So what we've been able to do is use Madison Hemings' words from 1873 and narrate a space about his mother.

Genevieve Angio-Morneau gives a tour of the windowless room where Hemings may have lived. For nearly 50 years this was part of a men's bathroom. Now it’s designed as a space to learn and reflect, with silhouettes of mother and child projected against plastered stone walls.

Genevieve Angio-Morneau: So if you want to walk inside, it's a very small space.

Angio-Morneau says Hemings had a plan for her children from an early age, when she was a servant in Jefferson’s residence in Paris, where she was legally “free.” 

Angio-Morneau: When it's time to come back potentially to Virginia, she actually refuses to come back, and it's an interesting moment where you have an interesting power play between this young enslaved individual and Thomas Jefferson.

Historians say Hemings made Jefferson promise to free her children when they turned 21. And unlike nearly all 400 other Monticello slaves, they were freed. There is no record of Jefferson emancipating Hemings-- though after his death, his daughter allowed her to leave the plantation.

Descendant Ashley Walker grew up in Charlottesville and is thrilled that visitors can experience this once-hidden history.

Ashley Walker: It's just powerful to come and be able to see her space and know that we knew our story was real, but now everybody else gets to see it, and that's really, really moving.

Descendant Diana Redman found out she was related to Madison Hemings more than 20 years ago. She credits the Thomas Jefferson Foundation for opening up historic records so families can conduct genealogical research.

Diana Redman: Because if you don’t know where you come from, it might affect where you’re going. And when you recognize what so many of our ancestors did and how they moved their families forward, it’s one step at a time, each generation was going to do a little bit better than the previous generation.

The opening of the new exhibits caps the $35 million Mountaintop Project and marks 25 years of the oral history project Getting Word, recording more than 200 interviews with descendants.

Leslie Greene Bowman: Because we don't understand Monticello or Jefferson if we don't understand the legacy of slavery and its history here.

Monticello President Leslie Greene Bowman hopes the project and restored spaces help heal old wounds.

Bowman: Somebody came up to me after the program and said, 'The spirits under the soil are happier today.

Bowman says the next big project will be a site at Monticello for contemplation of freedom and slavery. For Virginia Currents, I’m Hawes Spencer, WCVE News.