Jefferson was not a benevolent slave owner and doesn’t need any apologists


More than one year ago, a discussion on Twitter regarding the enslaved woman Sally Hemings (owned by Thomas Jefferson) led me to post here a text discussing how problematic is to refer to enslaved women as mistresses. Although it is obvious that enslaved women had no other choice than to have sexual intercourse with their masters when these men requested it, many historians and journalists continue attempting to romanticize these relations, by calling these women mistresses and lovers.

Over the last twenty years, Thomas Jefferson Monticello developed several initiatives to highlight the role of slavery in Jefferson’s estate. This change is related to various factors.

First, over the last century, the work of memory led by African American activists and the descendants of Monticello’s enslaved families was certainly central to remind Jefferson’s ties with the inhuman institution.

Second, the emergence of scholarship unveiling details about Jefferson as a large slave owner who fathered six enslaved children with Sally Hemings (only four survived) was also crucial to transforming the narrative about slavery in Monticello. The two books by Annette Gordon-Reed greatly contributed to the understanding of the relations between Thomas Jefferson and the Hemingses: the first is Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (first published in 1997) and the second (published nearly a decade later) is the Pulitzer-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Likewise, the work of public historians also played an important role to make this sensitive chapter of the history of the United States publicly recognized.

About one year after the publication of Gordon Reed’s first book, a DNA test indicated that Jefferson fathered at list one of Sally Heming’s children, Eston Hemings.  Nearly two years later, a committee formed by the Foundation Thomas Jefferson concluded that very probably Jefferson fathered not only Eston, but Sally’s six children.

When Gordon-Reed’s second book came out in 2008, Monticello was already committed to making slavery visible.

Monticello’s team reconstructed Mulberry Row, a section of Jefferson’s estate (not far from his mansion), where specialized enslaved men and women lived and worked. Monticello’s team also added plaques along the site to emphasize the existence of these slave quarters.

An app telling the story of slavery in Monticello followed and its official printed guide was revised several times in the last few years to include slavery as part of Monticello’s history.

Monticello also has an updated and detailed website that based on primary and secondary sources tells the history of enslaved men and women who lived and worked in Jefferson’s estate. At least since 2008, visitors to Monticello can take a tour of Mulberry Row. Offered a few times a day, this tour highlights the living and working conditions of enslaved men, women, and children. In 2012, an exhibition titled Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty was unveiled in the National Museum of American History. Since 2016, the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture includes a permanent exhibition titled Slavery and Freedom that highlights Jefferson’s contradictory position as founding father and slave owner.

These initiatives are certainly not perfect but they are a significant step. All these changes were not happening in isolation. Everywhere in the world, from Rio de Janeiro, passing through Havana, Paris, Liverpool, and Amsterdam, as well as in former African slave ports such as Ouidah, Angola, and Badagry in Nigeria, the history of the Atlantic slave trade is resurfacing and being recognized in the public space.

In 2017, Monticello’s team announced the “discovery” of what is believed to be Sally Hemings’s bedroom (also referred to as her quarters or “chamber”). The room is located near the kitchen at the end of a long underground hallway that gives access to the mansion. Indeed the room is not far from Mulberry Row and it served as a public restroom for several decades.

Following this “discovery,” Monticello decided to restore the room and use its space for an exhibition about Sally Hemings. On June 16, 2018, the exhibition “The Life of Sally Hemings” opened to the public with a great ceremony gathering dozens of descendants of enslaved men and women who lived and labored in Monticello.

Although it doesn’t seem to exist any plans to interpret Monticello exclusively as a site of slavery, in the coming months, tourists visiting Jefferson’s home will have to hear about slavery.

This never happened in Monticello or in any other former plantation in the United States (except for the newly unveiled Whitney Plantation in Louisiana).

Indeed, visitors to these slavery sites can choose to only visit the mansion and the gardens or take other tours that do not even mention the word “slavery.” Likewise, until recently, the tours to Monticello’s mansion hardly include the word slavery. To this day, not a single object inside Jefferson’s mansion has been used to interpret slavery. I have a clear recollection of one of my several visits to the mansion in which the guide simply referred to Sally Hemings as “a woman,” by failing to specify that she was an enslaved woman. Thus, to learn about slavery, visitors to Monticello had to take the tour of Mulberry Row. But Monticello’s team recently announced that they will phase out the old mansion tour. In other words, it seems that slavery will no longer be confined to Mulberry Row, because slavery and enslaved people were everywhere in Monticello. Its existence depended on these men, women, and children.

But regarding slavery, battles of public memory never end with the publication of a book or the unveiling of an exhibition. As Monticello moves forward to recognize slavery as an important element of its interpretation, the media seems inclined to reinvent the myth of Jefferson as the benevolent slave owner.

As the news about the new exhibition brought again to light the controversial relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, two articles published in the New York Times introduced the inaccurate information that Jefferson freed his four enslaved children.

The first article, “Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson’s Relationship With Sally Hemings,” published in June by journalist Farah Stockman in the New York Times states that Sally’s children with Jefferson “who were all fair-skinned and named after Jefferson’s friends, were freed when they reached adulthood.” This statement is inaccurate. Jefferson only freed on his will (this has nothing to do with the children achieving adulthood) two of his enslaved sons: Madison and Eston. The other two children he had with Sally Hemings, Beverly and Harriet were not legally freed by him on his will. Nearly white, they were allowed to leave Monticello. Probably with new names and papers, they merged in the “white society.” None of them was ever able to claim they were son an daughter of Thomas Jefferson.

The second article “The Legacy of Monticello’s First Black Family” by journalist Brent Staples is even more controversial. Starting with the title, there were several black families in Monticello. The Hemingses were probably not the first. The author uses the controversial term “sexual servants” to refer to enslaved women. Slaves were not servants and the term “servant” has been historically used in plantation tours to minimize the role of slavery in these sites.

Without identifying their names, Mr. Staples suggests that several historians consider Sally Hemings as Thomas Jefferson’s “second wife.” Although Annette Gordon-Reed used the term mistress (I discuss this issue in this post) and other sources (including the account of Madison Hemings, Sally’s son) referred to Sally as a “concubine,” I don’t recall any serious scholar who ever called Sally Hemings the “second wife” of Thomas Jefferson.

Mr. Staples also created a fully new “category” by referring to Sally Hemings’s mother, Elizabeth Hemings as the “enslaved lover” of John Wayles, her owner. Last but not least, Mr. Staples repeats Stockman’s inaccurate information (perhaps taken from Wikipedia) according to which Sally Hemings “skillfully prevailed on him [Jefferson] to free from slavery the four Jefferson-Hemings children who lived into adulthood.” First of all, none of these children carried the name “Jefferson-Hemings.” Second, and once again as mentioned above, Jefferson only freed two of his enslaved children (Eston and Hemings).

Upon the publication of these newspaper articles, I called out the authors on Twitter (see here and here). Their responses? Ms. Stockman referred to the fact that the two remaining children (Beverly and Harriet) were “informally freed,” refusing to accept that “informal” freedom doesn’t exist in slavery studies, the same way that there is no “informal” visa to enter the United States these days.

Mr. Staples also repeated the same justification: the two other children were freed because they were allowed to go. He even insisted that Sally Hemings died as a free woman, a statement that is not corroborated by Monticello’s team that clearly states that “she did not negotiate for, or ever receive, legal freedom in Virginia.” Sally Hemings was never freed. She is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere, possibly in Virginia.

In times of alternative facts, these statements made by journalists are not details.

Legal freedom mattered in times of slavery.

Either in the United States or in “exotic” places such as Brazil, black men and women who earned their freedom had to always carry their papers to prove their freed statuses.

In the United States, black men and women who were born free could also be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Papers proving they were free constituted the only documents that could perhaps give them some peace of mind.

Obviously, enslaved men and women such as Beverly and Harriet Hemings, who are described as nearly white, could “blend” in white society without raising much suspicion. Unfortunately, this was not the situation of the very large majority of slaves in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson was a large slave owner. Like many other slave owners, he had sexual relations and impregnated at least one of his slaves.

Jefferson was a man of his time, of course.

But in days when slavery sites move forward to recognize the evil institution in the public space, Jefferson doesn’t need any apologists.

Text and pictures by Ana Lucia Araujo. Copyright ©AnaLuciaAraujo. May not be reprinted without permission.


About Ana Lucia Araujo

I am a cultural historian of Latin America and the Atlantic World. I am Full Professor in the Department of History at Howard University. My work explores the history and the memory of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery and their social and cultural legacies. I am particularly interested in the public memory, heritage, and visual culture of slavery. To know more about my research and publications, visit my personal website or my webpage at Howard University.