Time has established the unsettling fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder who had an unwilling relationship with an enslaved woman by the name of Sarah “Sally” Hemings. Centuries later, more details have come to life about his hidden truths with the discovery of Hemings’ slave quarters.
NBC News reports the findings came to be on Monday (July 3) by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, which was also the name of his mansion where he kept 600 slaves. Historians claim Hemings’ room was looked over in the 60’s when it was turned into a bathroom to accommodate the growing number of visitors to the mansion. Hemmings and her family were inherited by Jefferson in 1775/76 after the death of his wife Martha Jefferson. In addition to the then 14-year-old Hemings, Jefferson inherited 134 other slaves he put to work at his Monticello mansion.
Hemings would later give birth to her first child at 16 during Jefferson’s (then 45) tenure in France. While Hemings could’ve stayed in the country, Jefferson promised her that any children she birthed by him would be free at the age of 21. She died at the age of 60 and was never formally freed by Jefferson. While Jefferson historians tried to deny the existence of Hemings and her seven children by Jefferson, a DNA test in the late 90’s revealed decedents of Hemings were in fact related to Jefferson.
Gardiner Hallock, director of restoration for Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation, says Hemings’ room could tell the young mother’s story in a new light. “This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room,” Hallock said. “It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being — a mother, daughter, and sister — and brings out the relationships in her life.”
Author Annette Gordon-Reed broke down the story between Jefferson and Hemings in her 1998 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. The book broke down inconsistencies surrounding the legacy of Jefferson and those connected to Hemings.
“For the first time at Monticello we have a physical space dedicated to Sally Hemings and her life,” Mia Magruder Dammann, a spokeswoman for Monticello added. “It’s significant because it connects the entire African American arch at Monticello.”
Historians at Monticello are currently working on The Mountaintop Project, a $35 million restoration project to uncover the stories of the enslaved and free African-Americans who lived on the Virginia property. Through Jefferson’s work log, the names (or given) were discovered but it’s been suspected that Jefferson didn’t write anything about Sally Hemings in order to hide his crimes. The names of her children were found after they were listed as slaves.
Hemings’ quarters reveled a stove and a fireplace. Historians are hopeful to find more artifacts to give life to Hemings and her family’s story.
“This room is a real connection to the past,” Fraser Neiman, director of archeology at Monticello said. “We are uncovering and discovering and we’re finding many, many artifacts.”
Of course, the reveal of Hemings’ quarters were overlooked when she was referred to as a “mistress” by the news outlet.