At the conclusion of our tour of Monticello in 2006, my friend and I gathered with our fellow guests in a sort of foyer. We had toured the nail factory, fields, and Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom. The guide, a genial woman in her late sixties, gave us a wrap-up. “There ah rumors that Mistah Jefferson had relations with one of his slaves, one Sally Hemings, but if you want mah opinion, Mistah Jefferson was too much of a gentleman to considah such a thing.” This prompted a gale of laughter from the group: men, women, young, old, black, white. This startled our guide, who joined because she’d look like the butt of the joke if she didn’t.
It looks like the Monticello people have acquiesced to history:
The “Life of Sally Hemings” exhibit is perhaps the most striking example of the sea change that has taken place at Monticello, as the foundation has increasingly focused on highlighting the stories of Monticello’s slaves. The foundation has embarked on a multiyear, $35 million project aimed at restoring Monticello to the way it looked when Jefferson was alive. It rebuilt a slave cabin and workshops where slaves labored, and has hosted reunions there for the descendants of the enslaved population, including sleepovers. It removed a public bathroom installed in 1940s atop slave quarters.
And it is phasing out the popular “house tour” of the mansion, which made only minimal mention of slavery alongside Jefferson’s accomplishments, radically changing what is experienced by the more than 400,000 tourists who visit Monticello annually.
Thanks to a short description given by one of Jefferson’s grandsons, historians believe that Hemings lived in the slave quarters in the South Wing. But they aren’t sure which room. Curators decided to tell Hemings’s story in one of the rooms. Instead of making it a period room with objects that she might have possessed, they left it empty, projecting the words of her son Madison on the wall to tell her story.
Even so, the stench of mothballs lingers whenever one of the dwindling crew of denialists enters the scene. “Some nights I just curl up in the semidark and just read his letters,” said one Mary Kelley of Maryland. “He just doesn’t seem to be a person who would do this.” Life is hard for iconographers.