At the expansive Monticello Estate in Virginia, there sits a simple room with white walls, brick floors and a single silhouette that represents the life of Sally Hemings, one of Thomas Jefferson's more than 600 slaves.
Presidential estates have long struggled with how to present the founding era exceptionalism along with the full history. The latest installation at Monticello, the Sally Hemming's exhibit, gives the most personal look yet at a shameful chapter in American history. The exhibit takes a definitive stance on her relationship with Thomas Jefferson and the children they had together. A story once hidden now has the spotlight.
Lucian Truscott is Jefferson's sixth-great-grandson. Shannon Lanier is also Jefferson's sixth-great-grandson — but from Hemings' side.
As a Jefferson descendant, Truscott said he was given run of Monticello, even jumping on his ancestor's bed. Lanier's story is a little different.
"Because we were studying the presidents in second grade, I stood up and I proudly said, 'Thomas Jefferson is my great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.' And the teachers said, 'Sit down and stop telling lies,'" Lanier recalled.
In 1998, Truscott met his Hemings cousins for the first time on the Oprah Winfrey show.
"Oprah turns to me and she says, 'Well, Lucian, now you met Hemings cousins. What are you gonna do now? And I went, 'Oh my God. What am I going to do?' You know? And so I invited them to come to Monticello for the family reunion," Truscott said.
But there were some people who didn't want that to happen.
"It also could mean that their possible icon — that Jefferson was a rapist. And they didn't want that to be their ancestor. They didn't want that to be their hero," Lanier said.
The Monticello Association — which is separate from the Monticello Estate — voted not to allow the Hemings family to be buried with other Jefferson descendants in the family graveyard. Truscott disagrees and believes that they should be allowed there.
"That graveyard is for Jefferson descendants and they're Jefferson descendants," Truscott said.
"I grew up at a time when you didn't hear the word slave here. You could go on 10 tours over 10 different years and never hear the word slave … now the tours you take here are complete tours."
Today they make note of things like where Sally and her brother lived and parts of the home that were built by slaves.
"That was never talked about … you were never taught when you were a kid … that slaves built Monticello, the Capitol, the White House … this country would not exist without slaves and Sally Hemings was one of the founding mothers of this country. I like to think about Thomas Jefferson getting up on the day that he wrote the Declaration of Independence back in 1776. Who made his breakfast? Who came in and shook his shoulder and said, 'Mr. Jefferson, it's time to get up and write the Declaration of Independence.' Slaves did," Truscott said.
"And it's so true, because, you know, 50 years ago when you come to Monticello, they act like Jefferson built this place by himself and there were no slaves here," added Lanier. "And they're now putting context to the content and telling that full story of what happened here. And I think that makes history richer."
He feels that the legacy Sally left her children was allowing them to know who they are.
"They didn't have to be silenced. That they were able to tell their story," Lanier said.
"That's one of the great things in my life, is getting to know the rest of my family … it's made my life and the life of my children so much richer," Truscott said.
for more features.