Jefferson's Monticello Makes Room For Sally Hemings As part of a restoration initiative to interweave Monticello's dynamic history, a new exhibit at Thomas Jefferson's Virginia estate gives humanity to an enslaved woman who bore six of his children.

Jefferson's Monticello Makes Room For Sally Hemings

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The nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson, is revered as a Founding Father of the nation, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a scholar and inventor, and he owned 607 human beings - 400 of them lived at his Virginia estate, Monticello. One of those enslaved people, Sally Hemings, was mother to six of his children. That fact, once fiercely disputed by some, is now accepted as fact. And if you visited Monticello, you might have learned something about Sally Hemings and toured the quarters where other slaves lived but their stories were in the background.

Today, Monticello unveiled new exhibits designed to amplify Hemings' story and those of the hundreds of others whose enslavement helped create and run Jefferson's extraordinary home. Gayle Jessup White has helped launch the new exhibits. She is a descendant of Sally Hemings' brother and, through another ancestor, of Thomas Jefferson. And she's with us now from Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Welcome. Thank you so much for being with us.

GAYLE JESSUP WHITE: Thank you for having me. It's a wonderful, important day here at Monticello, Michel.

MARTIN: Tell us about the Sally Hemings' room in the main house, and tell us about what we will learn that we might not have heard on the tour before.

WHITE: Sally Hemings' room would have been in what we call the south wing, which is an attachment to the main house kind of in a cellar-like area. And we have not interpreted it as a recreation of what we would have looked like then but rather as a presentation of Sally Hemings as a fully dimensioned human being - a mother, a sister, a daughter, a world traveler. She was multi-dimensional. All the people enslaved here, Michel, were multi-dimensional, and that's the story that we want the public, our guests, to understand.

MARTIN: And tell us what - is it going to be on the tour? And what are people going to hear on the tour?

WHITE: Previously, we had two tours at Monticello - one of the house and one of Mulberry Row, which is where the enslaved lived and worked. Going forward, guests will have a tour that is all inclusive that tells the story not only of Thomas Jefferson and his family, but of the enslaved families as well and that will be one tour.

MARTIN: So I guess the idea is that previously people could decide or not that they were going to experience this part of the life of Monticello. And now...

WHITE: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Monticello is saying that this is part of the total experience.

WHITE: Exactly, because that's the total story of Monticello, isn't it? It's not just about Thomas Jefferson. It's about the people who made Thomas Jefferson's life possible, and that would have been the enslaved people who kept this plantation running.

MARTIN: So today, Saturday, Monticello hosted hundreds of descendants of the people enslaved at Jefferson's home. Can you describe what this event and what these new exhibits mean for the descendants such as yourself?

WHITE: This is one of the most important moments in my life. As descendants, in my case, as an actual employee here, to breathe life into the stories of these people history wanted to forget. Americans still struggle with the legacies of slavery. Many Americans don't want to talk about slavery. It is clearly the biggest mark on our history, and we don't want to face it. But at Monticello, we are giving humanity to people long forgotten. And the people to whom we're giving humanity, are my people. They're my family.

MARTIN: Well, that's Gayle Jessup White, community engagement officer at Monticello.


MARTIN: She is a descendant of Sally Hemings' brother and of Thomas Jefferson through a different ancestor. And she spoke to us from Charlottesville. Gayle Jessup White, congratulations. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WHITE: Thank you, Michel.

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