A landmark exhibition that addresses former President Thomas Jefferson’s long-debated relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves who bore six of his children, will begin its national tour in Dallas this fall.
The exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello,” was originally organized in 2012 by Jefferson’s estate in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Its subject was the wider issue of the daily lives of slaves at the Founding Father’s Virginia plantation.
Thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, Monticello has expanded that show to include new material about Hemings. During an archaeological excavation of Monticello’s south wing in 2017, thousands of artifacts were uncovered, as well as a kitchen and a bedroom adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom. That room has since been restored and recently opened as an exhibition dedicated to what little is known of Hemings’ life. (There is, for instance, no known image of her.)
The updated touring version of “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” will feature some 340 items, several of them never seen before. The exhibition will begin its tour at the African American Museum in Fair Park and run from Sept. 22 through Dec. 31.
Gayle Jessup White, the community engagement officer at Monticello, says by knowing more about slavery, we can come to a better understanding of how the Founding Fathers — many of them slave owners — conceived of the individual rights of liberty and justice enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson significantly contributed to.
White is a descendant of both the Hemings and Jefferson families.
She says the tour's opening stop in Dallas came about because of a chance meeting with Dallas City Council member Kevin Felder, who represents southeastern Dallas. Intrigued by what she told him, the council member called Harry Robinson, president of the African American Museum in Dallas, and things took off from there, White says.
“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” tells a quintessential American story, White says.
“[It's] about how America started, about the enslaved families because this exhibition is from their perspective, not through Thomas Jefferson’s,” White said. “And [it's] about how their lives and the lives of the enslaved continue to impact us today.”