American History in Black and White
Bucknell’s Griot Institute sponsors a semester-long series examining the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.
By Patrick S. Broadwater
Thomas Jefferson, 19 feet tall and bulletproof, stands surrounded by marble on the banks of the Tidal Basin, casting a watchful eye north toward the White House. While this bronze version of the man has remained unchanged since 1947 - when it permanently replaced the original plaster centerpiece of the Jefferson Memorial after WWII restrictions on metal use were lifted - for a growing number of people, the perception of Jefferson and his place in American history has been slowly shifting.
To some extent, he is still - and will always be - Jefferson, the most visionary and idealistic of the framers. But the results of 1998 DNA tests indicating a high probability that he fathered seven children with one his slaves, Sally Hemings, have touched off not only a re-examination of Jefferson the man, but also a re-evaluation of the historical record.
It has been more than 200 years since political journalist James Callender first published rumors that Jefferson, "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves." And the story continues to resonate today.
Bucknell's Griot Institute for Africana Studies explored the Hemings-Jefferson relationship from a number of different perspectives this spring, hosting a two-month-long series of events. In addition to lectures from visiting scholars across the academic disciplines, "Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: An American Origin Story" and a companion class, ENG 290: Jefferson's Other Children, featured a PBS documentary, an original sound installation, dramatic performances and a trip to Monticello for a behind-the-scenes tour of Jefferson's longtime home.
The multidisciplinary aspect of the series provided a number of different access points to the Hemings-Jefferson story, says Carmen Gillespie, professor of English and director of the Griot Institute. "My aim was to hone in on particular questions about the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson narrative and, by having many different disciplines engaged, come up with fascinating and important contributions to our understanding of that story," she says.
Callender, a one-time Jefferson ally, was a scurrilous figure who reveled in publicly embarrassing the targets of his attacks. His assertion in 1802 that then-President Jefferson had a sexual relationship with a mulatto slave named Sally took what most certainly was a gossip item shared among the Virginia elite and unleashed a centuries-long debate about Jefferson's character.
"DNA aside, one aspect interesting to me is that, if you look at what he wrote, a lot of what he published was totally right," says Joshua Rothman, associate professor of history and director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama, whose lecture kicked off the series. "The information he had, about Sally Hemings, about her family, about the things that went on at Monticello, is verifiable, and he was right about almost everything he printed."
Despite the fact that Sally's four surviving children were 7/8 white, and contemporary accounts noted that several bore a remarkable resemblance to him, Jefferson never publicly answered Callender's claim. Nor did he acknowledge his alleged mistress or the children in any way, other than releasing two of the children from servitude as a condition of his will (Sally's other two children had been allowed to escape Monticello earlier). Jefferson's children from his marriage to Martha Wayles and their ancestors, aided by generations of prominent historians, denied the relationship altogether.
But DNA testing established that an individual carrying the Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings, the last known child born to Sally in 1808. Although there were a number of adult male Jeffersons living in Virginia at this time, subsequent research showed that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings shared the same physical location during the likely conception periods, and no known children were born at times that would exclude Jefferson paternity. Both the DNA study authors and a separate committee formed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation concluded that it was highly probable that Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings and likely that he had fathered all seven children.
The new evidence provided long-awaited validation for Hemings descendants who had steadfastly maintained their Jefferson family ancestry for more than 150 years.
"Their story had been belittled and brushed off, sometimes in ways that were clearly racist," Rothman says. "To see that story redeemed in a way, against people as powerful as Jefferson and the historians, that's a narrative that is pretty powerful. You can only keep stories like that buried so long before the truth emerges."
"Many African-Americans have a longing to know something more about their past. African-Americans have this gap about who they are because so few records were kept about their families," Gillespie says. "Many Americans have that desire to understand their family histories so they can understand more about themselves."
Unlike other heavily mythologized figures of the American Revolution, Jefferson has long been seen as complex - impenetrable, even - a man with an uncommon mind and an exquisite talent for compartmentalization. This may help to explain why for years the facts that he owned more than 600 slaves and died so deeply in debt that he couldn't afford to free them have been largely overlooked by the public. His grand failures did little to offset the reputation he built as a paragon of freedom and liberty.
"We tend to think that he's special. But not everything he did was special. Not everything we do is special, and I think there's value in realizing that," Rothman says. "I think deifying any of our historical figures is dangerous in a way. There's something to be said for having heroes, but there's danger in hero worship."
Though the statue by the Tidal Basin has not shrunk a single inch, Jefferson himself has been diminished in the eyes of many. The Hemings affair humanizes him in a way his other faults did not. While some still see the idealist, the propagator of humankind's greatest aspirations, others can no longer ignore that he was very much a flawed and fallible man of flesh and blood. How we see Jefferson is based on our belief systems and depends on how we view history.
Ultimately, confronting the Hemings-Jefferson narrative forces us to think about how we think about the past.
"I still can't come to terms with him," Molly Brown '15 says. "Our grade-school adulation of this man taught us to revere him, but my image of him is completely destroyed. America has never been a society defined in black and white. It's never that easy. The fact that this series sought to illuminate that fact was great."
Jefferson has been dead for nearly 200 years. Understanding the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings is to understand our past, to understand American history. Doing so, we will be better prepared to handle complex issues of today - such as race, inclusion, identity - and the more capable we will be to embody the lofty ideals that Jefferson so elegantly proposed for this country.
"The contradictions between what he articulated and the reality of Jefferson as a slaveholder is at the heart of who we are as a people," Gillespie says. "Thomas Jefferson and the founders created enviable ideals. The challenge has always been to live up to them. The relevance of this story never goes away and won't go away until we actualize those ideals."
Patrick S. Broadwater is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, N.Y.