The Current

What Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had was not a 'love affair,' new Monticello exhibit reveals

An exhibit at the Monticello plantation is being applauded by many descendants for acknowledging the life of Sally Hemings, and for sharing the truth behind her relationship with Thomas Jefferson.

Reconciling heroic narratives erases slavery, says professor Carol Anderson

Years after his wife's death, Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six of Sally Hemings's children - four survived to adulthood. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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A new exhibit at the Monticello estate recognizing Sally Hemings is a major step in transforming public history by ending the myth that her relationship with Thomas Jefferson was a love affair, an American author says.

"America has for too long been, I would say, trapped in these very heroic narratives that erase slavery, erased the enslaved, and has the nation being built by these strong white men," Carol Anderson toldThe Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"It is so far from the truth and so what Monticello did was to begin to resurrect that truth."

Hemings was an infant when she was enslaved along with her siblings and mother. They were an inheritance of Jefferson's first wife Martha. Hemings had six children with Jefferson — four made it to adulthood — who were enslaved until they were 21.

In order to reconcile the former U.S. president's legacy as the nation's hero and debase violence, people feel the need to call their relationship a love story, argued the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.

"The way to make that palatable is to call it a love affair."

Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, Virginia, circa 1950. The former estate of the third U.S president hosted a special gathering for descendents of slaves of the founding American father. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Many descendants of slaves of the founding American father were at Monticello for the opening of The life of Sally Hemings exhibit, including Jefferson descendant Gayle Jessup White, who is also related to the Hemings family.

"It was a gathering of my family. Three hundred of us were there," she said.

Jessup White said while many descendants say Jefferson and Hemings was a love story, others argue Hemings behaved as she was treated: inherited property.

"Many people believe because there was this huge power imbalance, that she was raped. So what we want people to have are the facts as we know them," Jessup White said, who is also Monticello's community engagement officer.

The facts used for this exhibit were based on Hemings' son's memoir, Madison Hemings, which were given to a newspaper reporter in 1873, Jessup White said.

She noted another important fact shared was that Hemings also negotiated with Jefferson for special privileges — both for herself and for her children, which were granted.

'Sally Hemings negotiated with one of the most influential men of his time," says Gayle Jessup White of former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson who inherited her as a slave. 0:47

"Sally Hemings wasn't just an appendage of Thomas Jefferson, or a name that many people have known throughout history and have scandalized. But she was in fact a mother and a sister and a caregiver and a daughter and a seamstress and a world traveler," Jessup White said.

She told Tremonti that Hemings negotiating her own agency for a brief period of time as well as working into her agreement a way to decide the fate of her children gave her a privilege over enslaved people.

"They were free years before the great civil war that freed four million enslaved people, so … it's really important for people to understand who she was."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler, Howard Goldenthal and Liz Hoath.

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