'Perspectives' (ctd.)

June 18 2018

Image of 'Perspectives' (ctd.)

Picture: BG

I wrote a while ago (in one of my occasional nothing-to-do-with-art-history posts) about one aspect of America's struggles to come to terms with its slave-owning past; Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia. Now, the foundation that runs Monticello has opened a new part of the estate to visitors, the place where Jefferson's slave mistress, Sally Hemmings, lived with their children. In Salon, Lucian K. Truscott (one of Jefferson's descendants, by his wife) writes movingly about the development, and what it means to his family to now have his mixed race cousins accepted as part of Monticello's official history:

Today at Monticello, the descendants of Jefferson’s slaves will have their history formally recognized when a space where slaves lived will be opened to the public. The quarters that were occupied by Sally Hemings will be accessible, much as Jefferson’s bedroom has been open to the public all of these years. The space was used for many years as a public restroom until archaeologists and historians at Monticello discovered that it had been the place where Sally Hemings had raised the children she had with Thomas Jefferson.


In conjunction with the opening of the Hemings quarters, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, has issued a definitive affirmation that Thomas Jefferson fathered all six of Sally Hemings’ children. They are removing qualifiers such as “most likely” from the foundation’s previous position on Jefferson’s paternity in favor of evidence including Hemings’ family oral history, a DNA study carried out in 1998, a written history of Hemings’ and Jefferson’s son Madison published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873, and evidence taken from Jefferson’s own writings in his “Farm Book” confirming that he was present at Monticello each time Sally conceived. 

Truscott also discusses the fact that many other white Jefferson descendants (who are part of something called the Monticello Association) still refuse to allow Jeffersons black descendants from Sally Hemings to be members, and to be buried at Monticello:

In 1998, during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show with my Hemings cousins, I invited them to be my guests at the family reunion at Monticello. In May of 1999, about 50 of them joined me and attended all of the family events, including a service at Jefferson’s grave. Many white Jefferson descendants are buried there, including my brother and my parents, great grandparents, and great aunts and uncles. One day, I will be buried there alongside the rest of my family.

One of the things my Hemings cousins and I were seeking in attending the family reunions in 1999 and over the next several years was the right to be buried at Monticello in the graveyard, should any of the Hemings family express that desire. This became a key issue for the Monticello Association, and finally, in 2002, they took a vote on formally admitting our Hemings cousins into the family. They voted 95 to 6 against the Hemings.

People usually think and write about 'history' as if it is one, definable thing. But it is in fact two things; what actually happened, and what we think happened. The gap between the two is called injustice.

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