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Interracialism Beyond Bedroom

July 16, 2003

Interracialism Went Well Beyond the Bedroom


Walk the grounds of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello around dawn (before the tourists come) and you enter a 19th-century landscape where you half expect to meet The Founder himself, out on one of those brisk constitutionals for which he was known. These paths and gardens were alive with Jefferson descendants last weekend, for a new version of a family reunion. There were white Jeffersons, descended from Thomas and his wife, Martha. Alongside them — and in some cases looking just like them — were white, brown and black Jeffersons, descended from the children that the nation's third president is now presumed to have fathered with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.

Old-guard Jefferson descendants are fighting this new reality. But historians at Monticello itself, near Charlottesville, Va., have increasingly rendered them irrelevant by showing that the Jefferson family — and the early world it built — was a mixed-race enterprise, not just in the sexual sense, but at all levels of daily life. It was therefore fitting that the guest list at the most recent reunion did not end with the Jefferson bloodline but sprawled all over the Monticello family tree. Present were descendants of Burwell Colbert, the slave who fluffed Jefferson's deathbed pillows, and Wormley Hughes, the head gardener, to whom Jefferson entrusted his exotic plants. The most talked about ancestor this time around was Sally's half-brother, the master carpenter John Hemings, who had helped to build Monticello and whose last service for Jefferson was to build his coffin.

This new chapter in the plantation's life was masterminded by the historians Lucia Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright, who have been working for a long time to flesh out the lives of the slave workers who built and ran the plantation while Jefferson carried out his research in horticulture, architecture and design. The two historians have so far interviewed more than 150 descendants for a documentary project about the lives of Monticello's slaves. When finished and compiled, these histories will provide the sharpest picture yet of how black residents of Monticello lived before and after emancipation.

All roads at Monticello lead back to Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807). Nearly all of the household servants who cared for Thomas and Martha, right up to the moments of their deaths, were her children and grandchildren. This great matriarch, whose progeny included about 80 of the 600 or so slaves that Jefferson owned during his lifetime, was initially a slave of Martha Jefferson's father, John Wayles. Elizabeth bore six children by Wayles. When he died, the Jeffersons inherited 11,000 acres and more than 130 slaves, including Elizabeth and her children, some of whom were Martha Jefferson's half-brothers and half-sisters. The historical record is silent on what Martha thought about keeping her flesh and blood in bondage. The Hemings clan appears to have discussed it often (as well as the bond that developed between Thomas and Sally), keeping the story alive even as the Jeffersons suppressed and conspired to kill it.

The country has been fascinated for the better part of two centuries with the question of whether Jefferson followed his father-in-law's example and fathered children by Elizabeth's daughter, Sally. Leading historians who doubted this have done an about-face since genetic evidence linked Jefferson to one Hemings child. There is a growing consensus that Jefferson fathered most, if not all, of Sally's children, just as Madison Hemings claimed in a now-famous newspaper interview published in 1873.

The emergence of the genetic evidence has shown historians who believed otherwise that the black oral tradition is sometimes more reliable than the official "white" version of history. It has also cleared the way for us to focus on the wider Hemings clan and the hundreds of other slaves who passed through Jefferson's plantation. One central figure is Elizabeth's son John, the skilled woodworker who helped build Jefferson's paradise and took charge of the Monticello carpentry shop (called "the joinery") after 1809.

It stands to reason that John Hemings and Jefferson worked closely together, given that Jefferson's main passions were building and tearing down. Jefferson's notes on furniture and general construction contain several references to Hemings's pieces, including a writing desk that the former president compared to the work of one of his favorite poets, Virgil. Away from home and in need of a comfortable chair, Jefferson wrote to his family, "I long for a Siesta chair. . . . I must therefore pray you to send by Henry the one made by Johnny Hemmings."

John Hemings, with his woodworking genius, became a Jefferson interlocutor who gave life and depth to his master's sometimes vague ideas. He was also a designer who adapted furniture made in France and elsewhere in a style that has come to be known as Franco-Piedmont. Susan Stein, curator at Monticello, has dubbed a small cabinet almost certainly made by Hemings "the Rosetta stone" for what it illuminates about overall construction at the plantation.

The story of Elizabeth Hemings and her progeny is far from finished. Even so, it is shifting Monticello's mission and deepening what we know of the enslaved people who lived there. As Ms. Swann-Wright, the historian, said recently of this new research: "It isn't about Thomas Jefferson at all. It is about a community of African-Americans and how they lived their lives."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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