The Legacy of Monticello’s Black First Family

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2018-07-06 03:13Z by Steven

The Legacy of Monticello’s Black First Family

The New York Times
2018-07-04

Brent Staples
Photographs by Damon Winter


A view of Thomas Jefferson’s home from the main avenue where enslaved people were quartered at Monticello.

A recently opened exhibit at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate gives new recognition to Sally Hemings and the role of slavery in the home — and in his family.

Plantation wives in the slave-era South resorted to willful blindness when their husbands conscripted black women as sexual servants and filled the household with mixed-race children who inevitably resembled the master. Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, was several years dead when he set off on this path, fathering at least six children with Martha’s enslaved black half sister, Sally Hemings. The task of dissembling fell to the remaining white Jeffersons, who aided in a cover-up that held sway for two centuries and feigned ignorance of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings that lasted nearly four decades.

The foundation that owns Monticello, Jefferson’s mountaintop home near Charlottesville, Va., broke with this long-running deception last month when it unveiled several new exhibits that underscore the centrality of slavery on the founder’s estate. The most important — in the South Wing, where Sally Hemings once lived — explores the legacy of the enslaved woman whom some historians view as the president’s second wife and who skillfully prevailed on him to free from slavery the four Jefferson-Hemings children who lived into adulthood.

The exhibit underscores the fact that the Jefferson estate was an epicenter of racial mixing in early Virginia, making it impossible to draw clear lines between black and white. It reminds contemporary Americans that slave owners like the Jeffersons often held their own black children, aunts, uncles and cousins in bondage. And it illustrates how enslaved near-white relations used proximity to privilege to demystify whiteness while taking critical measure of the relatives who owned them…

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