The historic Albemarle County estate of Thomas Jefferson is paying tribute to the enslaved woman with whom the Founding Father had a half-dozen children with.
Close to 300 descendants of Sally Hemings gathered Saturday, June 16, to celebrate her legacy as Monticello unveiled an exhibit that will permanently pay homage to her.
“Sally Hemings is one of the most important Americans in the history of our nation,” said Andrew Mitchell Davenport, a descendant of Hemings.
For years, the historic plantation failed to acknowledge Hemings' impact on Jefferson, but not anymore.
“For a long time she has been erased from the historical record, her descendants' stories were not believed. So for Monticello, an internationally-recognized institution, to finally give her the place that she deserves its momentous. It’s beyond compare,” Davenport said.
“I’m very proud of Monticello, because they could have kept sweeping it under the rug and not mentioning it, act like it didn't happen,” said Shannon Lanier, descendant of Jefferson and Hemings.
“Monticello is no longer just the story of a Founding Father who wrote the Declaration of Independence. It includes the narratives of the enslaved people who were denied its promise of equality. Their stories belong here too,” said Thomas Jefferson Foundation President Leslie Greene Bowman.
The exhibit depicts the mother of at least six of Jefferson's children as a headless figure: ”The idea is that if you can’t represent it with historical accuracy maybe we should try to leave it up to the visitor to think about,” Monticello Special Programs Manager Brandon Dillard explained.
The figure sits in a mostly-empty room: “This is meant to be an empty solemn space. This is a place to contemplate the reality of slavery and the gravity for the people who suffered through that bondage,” said Dillard.
“I study art history and African-American art history. The exhibition is sparse, its sacred, its holy, it's the right way to go about doing it,” Davenport said.
Along with the Hemings exhibit, Monticello also unveiled the new Getting Word oral history project exhibit that depicts the stories of other people enslaved at the plantation.
Both exhibits are now open to the public.
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