I recently had the opportunity to go on the Hemings Family tour at Monticello. A group of 14 people including myself attended this program, which our guide rightfully noted is “probably the most famous enslaved family in American history.”
The tour began on the west side of Jefferson’s home before moving on to the south terrace. There we were able to take in the view where importantly, our guide, Mr. Bill Bergen noted that most of Jefferson’s enslaved laborers were not members of the Hemings family nor worked in and around the house. The majority of those slaves worked in the fields planting predominately grain crops in Jefferson’s years as a Federal public servant, including his years as President and in his retirement from public life. He pointed out the various farms that could be seen from our vantage point, which looked down over this area. One certainly can’t help but think of Jefferson looking over this same space to attempt to monitor the field hands.
View looking towards the agricultural fields at Monticello where most of Jefferson’s slaves planted, tended, and harvested his crops. Photo by author.
Quickly Bergen returned to the topic of this tour: the Hemings family. He made clear that the Hemings are a tough subject for many people. As he said “We will deal with some tough subjects but they are important to understanding the Hemings’ and Jefferson.” On this tour we entered the house the way the Hemings (and other enslaved domestic servants) would have, not from the grand entrance on the east side of the building.
Once underneath the entrance hall in the cellar, we were given a piece of paper with the Hemings family tree starting with the matriarch, Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings (1735-1807). After giving a small history of her, Bill pointed out the “Crossroads” exhibit which features cutouts of Martha Jefferson Randolph (Jefferson’s eldest daughter and longest living child) but also members of the Hemings family: Burwell Colbert, a butler; Priscilla Hemmings, the woman who provided a great amount of child care for the Randolph children; Betty Brown, who was a seamstress and lady’s maid; and Harriet Hemings, a girl who also was a seamstress and had other skills. The space had some interactive items: a replica portion of the dumbwaiter used in the dining room in Jefferson’s time as well as a call bell, which other visitors were consistently ringing. The space, with other visitors not on this tour, other employees not giving the tour, and our own presence certainly gave the feel for a lot of hustle and bustle. We ascended a narrow staircase, which forced some people to comment about the struggle in getting materials like food up and down the narrow staircase.
We moved through the principal rooms of the first floor as most visitors to Monticello do; but this time not with an eye to the pelts and bones in the entrance hall. Rather, it was Burwell Colbert would have greeted visiting people at the door. He or others kept this room (and others) warm in the winter. He probably was in charge of keeping the massive clock going in that same hall. Colbert was the subject and the actor here. How he worked and what he did. Jefferson was included of course, but not in the way you usually hear about him on the “normal” tour of the house. Let me be clear though (having been on the traditional tour), Burwell Colbert is discussed on that tour.
In the South Square Room, where Martha Jefferson Randolph’s small office/Jefferson library overflow is represented, the guide created some interactions between Colbert and Mrs. Randolph. In addition, a small writing table is reproduced based on one made by John Hemmings (1776-1833—side note: he unlike the other members of the family seems to always have two m’s in his surname).
The discussion about John Hemmings continued in the book room and book annex, where Mr. Bergen encouraged us to look at the woodwork and reflect on the craftsmanship of John. He asked the audience about what would be advantages and disadvantages in a system of slavery of working in and around the owner’s house. Also, he asked what might have been some advantages and disadvantages of having the light skin of the Hemings in a time where skin color really did inhibit people’s understanding of other people. Visitors were willing to engage with this (though only two of us, self included were black).
After a quick walk through the parlor, we were ushered into the bedroom of Jefferson. There we discussed Burwell again who also saw to Jefferson’s needs as his personal servant. Our guide explained the Burwell was one of those that Jefferson freed in his will and he was given $300 to buy tools that could be used for his skills as a painter and glazer. For me, whenever I go to Monticello I can’t help but stare at the alcove bed and think about the saga of Sally Hemings.
The tour went into the dining room where the wine dumbwaiter and the static dumbwaiter were not described as a unique little Jefferson invention but rather as a way for Jefferson to limit the amount of slaves seen by people in the dining room.
We went down into the south dependency and into the kitchen. Bill Bergen discussed James Hemings (1765-1801), who Jefferson took to Paris, France when James was 19 years old. For three years, James learned the art of French cookery and though he was technically not enslaved in France then, Hemings returned to the United States. While in Philadelphia, Jefferson and Hemings agreed that if Hemings taught another slave of Jefferson’s the art of cooking in the French style, Jefferson would emancipate James. This was done in 1796 and here Bill Bergen noted that we have the clear sign that James was also educated. James compiled an inventory of kitchen items at this time. James’ brother, Peter filled the void. In 1801, Hemings as a free employee returned to work at Monticello briefly before dying of what appears to be suicide later that year.
After a quick five-minute break, the tour began again outside the South Dependency. Here, the guide pointed out that one of the rooms in the south dependency housed Sally Hemings at one point. That room (which had been a restroom) will have archaeology done and work will go forward with representing the space, as Sally would have experienced it.
View of the southern wing which includes a room that was used as a slave quarter. Work will be done to begin a restoration of the quarter space. Photo by author.
We went over to the weaver cottage/slave quarter on Mulberry Row, one of two original buildings that survive on the row. As a part of the “Mountaintop Project” (heavily funded by David Rubenstein), the cottage will get much needed restoration work to bring it back to its appearance when Jefferson lived at Monticello and when free and enslaved laborers worked in this space. This is another space that the guide pointed out that Sally Hemings occupied at one point.
View of the reconstructed John and Priscilla Hemmings cabin. Photo by author.
We finally came to the reconstruction of John Hemmings’ and Priscilla Hemmings’ (1776-1830) cabin. Mr. Bergen encouraged us to take note of the petrified chinking that was discovered in an archaeological investigation with the imprint of a hand on it. One visitor asked if the size of the slave quarter was typical. He noted that though the building was not original it was recreated based on archaeology and contemporary historical documentary evidence. He did state that one exception was that the log chimney would have likely leaned further away from the structure in the event of a fire the chimney could be pushed away from the rest of the structure to save the majority of the structure. We went inside the cabin where there were some items such as dishes, a table filled with some personal items, and one bed. There was also a root cellar represented but unfortunately moisture was trapped beneath the Plexiglas so as to prevent us from seeing what foodstuff was represented in the root cellar. Another visitor asked if there would have been bedsteads for children or if they slept on the floor. Here Bill explained that the best evidence beyond the archaeology of the site was the account of Martha J. Trist’s (great-granddaughter of Jefferson) 1889 memoir recalling the interior of the cabin. Jefferson’s granddaughter, Cornelia also provided some description of what was in the space by recounting Priscilla’s death.
It was also outside the reconstructed quarter that we delved into Sally Hemings (1773-1835). Mr. Bergen noted that the story dates back to the early years of Jefferson’s presidency and is shrouded in mystery as neither Jefferson nor Sally Hemings made any public or private written statements. Jefferson’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren attempted to push the blame onto other family members. The 1999 DNA testing had to be done with a male Jefferson family member not of a direct descent to Thomas Jefferson because Jefferson lacked a son. However, the evidence did prove it was a Jefferson (not a Carr) who fathered Eston Hemings (and probably all of Sally Hemings’ children who were all light skinned and three light enough to pass as whites). He also noted that the post-1999 vogue idea for those who cannot imagine Jefferson having children with Sally, has been to blame Jefferson’s brother, Randolph. He highly credited the thinking of Annette Gordon-Reed. He said “I doubt a man would have thought of this; but, she looked back at the 9 months prior to Sally having a child and found Jefferson was at home and no evidence of Randolph having been at Monticello.” Bill said that some people have left Monticello as employees since this controversy of the late 1990s/early 2000s but that others have come on and are willing to deal with the reality: that it is very probable that years after Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was dead, Jefferson had a relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings. He said that some people on the other end of the spectrum feel like the foundation doesn’t go far enough in calling out the way in which Sally may have had these children (i.e., by force); but, he said it is impossible to know if any legitimate feelings of love existed between the two or not.
In all, I thought the tour was well received and conceived. Mr. Bergen noted that Monticello could not have existed without slavery. From the very removal of part of the top of the mountain, to the brick masons and carpenters and cabinetmakers, to those who made clothing and dumped urine and feces out of chamber pots, over to those in the fields. The Hemings were clearly the focus but their unique set of circumstances was also not privilege. Some family members were able to be free, at least Sally’s oldest sister, Mary had a long-term relationship with a white man. Still, she was not able to get her four enslaved children out of slavery after she was free. James Hemings (son of Critta) was whipped and later escaped (though interestingly enough, Jefferson did not go looking for him). And some of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren suffered the fate of many slaves: sold at auction because of the debts of a single slaveholder.
In this tour the Hemings enslaved community had names and families but also were talked about in an active voice. They loved, they worshipped, they resisted the institution of slavery, a small few were emancipated, and they suffered under the yoke of bondage. I would say that my only real critique is that I wish more time had been given to day-to-day life of these people. One example is in Jefferson’s bedroom there is a chest of drawers with some personal bric-a-brac. It would have been easy to discuss Burwell Colbert’s interactions with these items as Jefferson’s personal servant as a means to illustrate Burwell’s work and drive home the point about work in the “big house” not necessarily being easy. It’s always a good time to see what Monticello is doing and certainly now, as Bill Bergen said: the staff is more committed than ever to not using passive voice and getting the story of slavery out to the public.