Sally Hemings is part of American history

Since no known photos of Sally Hemings exists, a shadow is cast on the walls of her living quarters as a representation. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello)

Thomas Jefferson’s historic estate has gotten a major facelift to reflect its full story.

He famously wrote that “all men are created equal,” and now his estate is taking major steps to honor that claim.

The curators at Monticello have updated Jefferson’s estate to include the stories of hundreds of slaves who literally helped build the home of the founding father, with a central focus on Sally Hemings, who gave birth to six of his children. A room believed to have served as Hemings’ living quarters has been updated to reflect a more full history of her life and contributions.

“It’s not a re-creation of what her room would’ve looked like at the time but rather a presentation of Sally Hemings as a fully dimensioned human being: a mother, a sister, a daughter, a world traveler,” said Gayle Jessup White, a Hemings and Jefferson descendant.

It’s the first time tours of the Jefferson estate will show all visitors the slavery narrative — past tours gave visitors the option to experience a Jefferson-only narrative or to take a separate tour that also told the story of his slaves.

Sally Hemings’ living descendants were brought into the process as well.

By bringing Jessup White into the process, the Monticello estate is moving beyond simply telling the uncomfortable aspects of Jefferson’s history and instead making those facts part of the larger woven fabric of his, and America’s, life.

And to their credit, the curators of Monticello are facing some of the most painful questions surrounding Jefferson’s legacy, including whether his relationship with Hemings was sexual assault.

“There are a lot of people who believe rape is too polarizing a word,” said Monticello public historian Niya Bates. “But it was a conversation that we knew we could not avoid. It’s a conversation the public is already having.”

There’s also the fact that no known photographs of Hemings exist, which the exhibitors addressed by casting a shadow meant to represent her figure onto the wall of her living quarters.

“It’s not just about Thomas Jefferson, it’s about the people who made Thomas Jefferson’s life possible,” Jessup White said. “At Monticello we’re giving humanity to people long forgotten. And the people to whom we’re giving humanity are my people — they’re my family.”

Being open and honest about history will give America the best chance of being strong going forward.

As we increasingly face the demons of our nation’s past, we’re sometimes left with a painful choice: to disown individuals who played instrumental roles in our nation’s history or to willfully ignore the mistakes and even crimes they committed along the way.

The changes at Monticello show there is a better way that fully acknowledges the truth of America’s history by honoring all the people who lived and suffered for its benefit.

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