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Sally Hemings Gets New Attention At Monticello


A new exhibit opened yesterday at Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson. It showcases slave spaces, including the living space of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman owned by Jefferson, and mother to six children by him. From Charlottesville, Hawes Spencer of member station WCVE reports.

HAWES SPENCER, BYLINE: Genevieve Angio-Morneau gives a tour of the little space that spent nearly 50 years covered in ceramic tile as a men's bathroom.

GENEVIEVE ANGIO-MORNEAU: So if you want to walk inside, it's a very small space.

SPENCER: There are no windows, so light and sound can tell the story, which begins when Hemings sails to France to join Jefferson and his daughters as a teenaged nanny in Paris.

ANGIO-MORNEAU: When it's time to come back, potentially, to Virginia, she actually refuses to come back. And it's an interesting moment where you have an interesting power play between this young enslaved individual and Thomas Jefferson.

SPENCER: Historians say Hemings made Jefferson promise to free her children by the time they turned 21. And unlike nearly all 400 other Monticello slaves, they were freed.

SHANNON LANIER: He owned his family. He owned my family.

SPENCER: That's Shannon LaNier, a broadcast journalist who's here at Monticello for a family reunion.

LANIER: I remember going to school in first grade and telling everyone that Thomas Jefferson was my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and the teacher saying, sit down and stop telling lies. Of course, everybody laughed.

SPENCER: In 1998, DNA testing stopped any more laughing and helped intensify Monticello's effort to identify the slaves who labored here.

LESLIE GREENE BOWMAN: We don't understand Monticello or Jefferson if we don't understand the legacy of slavery and its history here.

SPENCER: That's Monticello's president, Leslie Greene Bowman, who oversaw the rebuilding of lost slave cabins and numerous restorations, including finding Hemings' home underneath a 1968 bathroom.

BOWMAN: No one today would put bathrooms in a place where enslaved people lived.

SPENCER: Bowman hopes Saturday's unveiling of this $35 million project helps heal old wounds.

BOWMAN: Somebody came up to me after the program and said the spirits under the soil are happier today.

SPENCER: Bowman says the next big project will be a site at Monticello for contemplation of freedom and slavery. For NPR News, I'm Hawes Spencer in Charlottesville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "MOUNTAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hawes Spencer