ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This President's Day, we're going to take a look at the changing legacy of Thomas Jefferson and his most famous slave, Sally Hemings. Her story was downplayed for years, and now historians widely agree that Jefferson was the father of her six children. Sally Hemings was a seamstress and chambermaid at Jefferson's plantation, Monticello. She never formally received her freedom.
In the 1940s, the room in Monticello where Hemings likely lived was turned into a bathroom for visitors. Now it is being restored as part of a larger effort at Monticello to reconstruct the places where enslaved people lived and worked. Christa Dierksheide is a historian at Monticello. We called her up to ask about the renovation.
CHRISTA DIERKSHEIDE: We've just been in the process of peeling back that sort of 20th century iteration, and we've found lots of really cool and interesting things. We found a fireplace. So if you can imagine that this may have been Sally Hemings' fireplace where she and her children would have warmed themselves in the evenings. We found the original brick floor. We found the original walls and even traces of some shelves. So slowly, in peeling back what used to be a restroom, we're discovering a life in this space that we think was Sally Hemings'.
SHAPIRO: And as you uncover the physical remnants of this life, what do you hope to add that will let visitors better understand the contours of the life this woman lived?
DIERKSHEIDE: Well, Sally Hemings has been hugely important in the American imagination for over 200 years, but mostly she's seen through Jefferson. And I think we wanted to, for the first time, devote a space that's just about her, about seeing her as a person, as a mother, as a sister, as a daughter. We want to include her four children in this space. And although we talk about her, we don't have a space that's just about her. And I think that's what we want this room to be.
SHAPIRO: I understand Sally Hemings was not even acknowledged at Monticello until the early 1990s. Why was her story excluded for so long?
DIERKSHEIDE: I think Sally Hemings just wasn't mentioned until then because it was viewed as something that could taint Jefferson's reputation. But I think she is a huge part of the story at Monticello. And we want to tell an accurate, holistic story of what this place was.
SHAPIRO: The nature of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings has been debated. Of course, she was a slave who was owned by Thomas Jefferson. How does Monticello plan to address this very delicate topic?
DIERKSHEIDE: Well, Ari, there's so much we don't know about this relationship. But there are things that we do know. For example, we know that it was a 40-year relationship. We know that it resulted in six children. One of the things that visitors are surprised to learn is that she and Jefferson's wife Martha shared the same father, the slave trader John Wayles. So that actually made Jefferson's wife and Sally Hemings half-sisters.
SHAPIRO: The Hemings story is only part of the restoration happening at Monticello. Can you describe the general mission of this $35 million project?
DIERKSHEIDE: So what we realized is that even though we were telling the story of slavery on the mountaintop, the area of the house, nobody could actually see anything visible. There were no remnants of slavery that visitors could encounter. So what we're doing is to restore the landscape of slavery. And we are recreating or restoring spaces where enslaved families would have worked, would have lived and made it the dynamic place that it was.
SHAPIRO: Christa Dierksheide is a Monticello historian. Thanks for talking with us this President's Day.
DIERKSHEIDE: Thanks so much for having me.
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