When my brother Frank and I visited our great aunts Mary Walker and Agnes Randolph at their home in Charlottesville in the early 1950s, they used to load us into the back seat of the family Buick and drive up the mountain to Monticello and drop us off for the day. My aunts had been born at Edgehill, the Randolph family plantation, just a few miles down the mountain. My aunts treated Monticello as the family home, and we were given the run of the place.
We played on our sixth great-grandfather's bed, we ran around upstairs in the unfinished bedrooms and played marbles in the Dome Room. We explored the cave-like work and storage rooms beneath the house, and we crawled out one of the upstairs windows onto the roof and playfully dropped pebbles on tourists as they passed by on the walks below.
If you took a tour of the place back then, you were unlikely to hear the word “slave.” Tours made it sound like Jefferson built the place and was the only person living there. The truth was far different. Jefferson owned as many as 600 slaves during his lifetime, and in the years after he retired to Monticello from the presidency, there were some 100 to 125 slaves living and working at his plantation every day.
Thomas Jefferson’s slaves built Monticello. They cleared the land and felled every tree, they sawed and finished every board, they made and laid every brick, they forged and pounded every nail in that house. They planted and harvested his vegetable garden and crops. They made his life at Monticello possible. Without slaves, Thomas Jefferson would not have had the time in the day to write the Declaration of Independence. Without slaves, the White House wouldn’t have been built. Neither would the Capitol building. In this and so many other ways, slaves are truly among the Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers of this country, and yet up there at Mr. Jefferson’s house, it was as if they never existed.
Tours of the house and grounds at Monticello over the last couple of decades have recognized the lives and work of the enslaved community. I took a tour there a few years ago in mid-winter, with nearly a foot of snow on the ground outside. Our tour guide, William Bergen, had gone into the archives and came up with the number of slaves it had taken to cut and carry the firewood necessary to heat Monticello for a single day. He also pointed out the woodwork that had been done by John Hemings, the brother of Sally Hemings, in Jefferson’s bedroom and library, and the furniture he had built that Jefferson designed.
Today at Monticello, the descendants of Jefferson’s slaves will have their history formally recognized when a space where slaves lived will be opened to the public. The quarters that were occupied by Sally Hemings will be accessible, much as Jefferson’s bedroom has been open to the public all of these years. The space was used for many years as a public restroom until archaeologists and historians at Monticello discovered that it had been the place where Sally Hemings had raised the children she had with Thomas Jefferson.
In conjunction with the opening of the Hemings quarters, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, has issued a definitive affirmation that Thomas Jefferson fathered all six of Sally Hemings’ children. They are removing qualifiers such as “most likely” from the foundation’s previous position on Jefferson’s paternity in favor of evidence including Hemings’ family oral history, a DNA study carried out in 1998, a written history of Hemings’ and Jefferson’s son Madison published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873, and evidence taken from Jefferson’s own writings in his “Farm Book” confirming that he was present at Monticello each time Sally conceived.
The Foundation also took what I consider to be the extraordinary step of specifically refuting claims made in letters written by my fourth great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and my great aunt, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, that Samuel or Peter Carr had fathered Sally’s children. The Carr brothers were the sons of Jefferson’s best friend Dabney Carr and Jefferson’s sister Martha. They were raised at Monticello after their father’s untimely death at age 30 and were present on the mountaintop for much of their boyhood.
The Monticello Association, comprised of the white descendants of Jefferson, took the position for more than 100 years that the Carr brothers fathered Sally's children, based on these letters, which were apparently written to cover up Jefferson’s paternity. The 1998 DNA study took samples from Carr descendants. No Carr DNA was found in Hemings descendants, conclusively ruling out Peter and Samuel Carr as the fathers of Sally's children.
Thomas Jefferson Randolph lived at Monticello in the last years of Jefferson’s life, was close to his grandfather and clearly knew the truth about Sally’s children. The letters between him and Ellen Coolidge were lies written in order to cover up Jefferson’s paternity, knowing they would become part of the historical record. The white Jefferson descendants in the Monticello Association were only too happy to use them to spread the lie perpetrated by the family. Most historians accepted this version of the story for the next hundred years.
In 1998, during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show with my Hemings cousins, I invited them to be my guests at the family reunion at Monticello. In May of 1999, about 50 of them joined me and attended all of the family events, including a service at Jefferson’s grave. Many white Jefferson descendants are buried there, including my brother and my parents, great grandparents, and great aunts and uncles. One day, I will be buried there alongside the rest of my family.
One of the things my Hemings cousins and I were seeking in attending the family reunions in 1999 and over the next several years was the right to be buried at Monticello in the graveyard, should any of the Hemings family express that desire. This became a key issue for the Monticello Association, and finally, in 2002, they took a vote on formally admitting our Hemings cousins into the family. They voted 95 to 6 against the Hemings. Five of the six members voting “yes” to admit the Hemings were Truscotts.
My Hemings cousins and I no longer attend the Monticello Association family reunion each year in May, choosing instead to attend Hemings family events, which have been held there several times over the years. My Hemings cousins and I were invited to Monticello for the unveiling of Sally’s quarters this weekend. I will be unable to attend, but many of my cousins and the descendants of other slave families will be honored guests at the unveiling.
Monticello has laid to rest once and for all who fathered Sally’s children. The rest of my white Jefferson cousins can say what they want, but the place where Jefferson lived has recognized what our Hemings cousins have known for more than two centuries. Thomas Jefferson is their great grandfather, just as he is mine.
You can judge him morally as a slave owner and as a man, but the controversy is over. Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’ children, and Monticello, where they lived and worked, is now as much the family home of my Hemings cousins and all the other slave descendants as it was mine when my Randolph great aunts used to drop off my brother Frank and me there for the day years ago.
Today Monticello is telling the world an uncomfortable truth about our history. It is a glorious day for Monticello, for our family, and for the greater family of all Americans.