Monticello’s new exhibits tell the stories of all the people who lived there

The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit gives a complete look at Hemings’ life, thanks to excerpts from her son 
Madison’s memoir. Photo by Eze Amos The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit gives a complete look at Hemings’ life, thanks to excerpts from her son Madison’s memoir. Photo by Eze Amos

When Gayle Jessup White climbed down into the space, essentially a trench dug about four feet below the floor, the first thing she did was scoop up some dirt and rub it on her hands and arms. White’s great, great, great grandfather, Peter Hemings, was an enslaved cook at Monticello, and he had stood on that very ground, possibly in the same spot, some 200 years before.

“It was an amazing moment,” says White, the community engagement officer at Monticello. “When I come in here I feel that moment every time.”

The archaeological site that shows the remains of the first kitchen at Monticello in the south wing is one of the last pieces of the five-year Mountaintop Project, which sought to tell a more complete version of Thomas Jefferson’s home by bringing to light the stories of the people who lived there—both enslaved and free—through 30 restored spaces and exhibits. The first phase of the project, completed in 2015, included the restoration of Mulberry Row, made up of 20 dwellings and workshops of the enslaved, indentured servants, free blacks and free whites at Monticello, as well as the launch of the Hemings Family Tour. The second phase of the project, which began in 2015 and was opened to the public last weekend, includes six new exhibits and restored spaces, most notably the Life of Sally Hemings, a digital interactive exhibit housed in the slave quarters in the south wing where Hemings lived with her four surviving children. It marks the first time Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, who gave birth to six of his children, has received a space at Monticello for her story.

The Monticello Dairy was unable to supply the household and its guests with enough butter and cream, so enslaved workers carted in hundreds of pounds of butter every winter from Poplar Forest, which was 90 miles away. Photo by Eze Amos.

“Returning another part of the Mountaintop back to the Jefferson period, especially getting the Sally Hemings room back and giving her a space on the mountaintop, is just phenomenal,” says Gardiner Hallock, the Robert H. Smith director of restoration at Monticello. “…[You get] a sense of her as a human being; you bring her humanity back.”

Other newly opened spaces include The Dairy, a restored room where the enslaved made butter and cheese for the household; the Getting Word oral history project; the Granger-Hemings Kitchen; the Textile Workshop, a restored 1775 structure where enslaved women made clothes; and the Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson exhibit, a restored room in the original living quarters above the south wing, designed to offer a fuller picture of Jefferson’s wife.

“We’ve really been focusing our restoration efforts on spaces where women were the primary occupants, either in terms of the work being done or the spaces being occupied,” says Emilie Johnson, assistant curator. “We do a great job of bringing Thomas Jefferson to life in our tours of the main house, and it allows these other spaces to bring these other stories to life.” 

About 300 descendants of the enslaved community at Monticello—the largest gathering to date—attended the June 16 opening day of the new exhibits, which included a permanent exhibit for the Getting Word oral history project, which ties the past and present. Photo by Eze Amos.

Living history

On June 16, Monticello opened its newest exhibits to the public and welcomed 300 descendants of the enslaved community that lived and worked at the 5,000-acre plantation–607 people total, and as many as 130 at any one time–to celebrate Juneteenth, the national holiday that honors the abolition of slavery, and the 25th anniversary of Monticello’s Getting Word oral history project, which tells the stories of the enslaved through their descendants.

Niya Bates, Monticello’s public historian of slavery and the African American life and director of the oral history project, says Getting Word ties the past and present by spotlighting six of the largest families of enslaved people at Monticello, and tracing their descendants through history as they fought for civil rights in the 1910s, 1960s and today.

The oral histories collected from descendants have been used previously during the Slavery at Monticello tours, but the permanent exhibit, which includes photos of the descendants as well as their ancestors, is the first time the project has enjoyed a physical space, next to the Hemings exhibit in one of the former slave quarters.

“I hope people take away how many people the institution of slavery impacted,” Bates says. “We have a really prominent descendant in Sally Hemings, but we also have these other families—I want them to know the experience of slavery at Monticello affected hundreds, if not thousands, of people through the generations.”

The Cook’s Room, located in the south wing, shows what the slave quarters would have looked like during Thomas Jefferson’s era. Photo by Eze Amos

Gayle Jessup White first learned of her relation to Jefferson when she was in her teens. Her family spoke of the connection on her father’s side, but they didn’t have any documented proof. White’s grandmother, who was from Charlottesville, died when her dad was 5, and he never knew her. But White remembered the stories that were passed down from generations, and during her first visit to Monticello in 2004, she told the tour guide she was a descendant of Jefferson. She had mixed feelings about the notion—that the man who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal also owned slaves, which she calls “a blot on his legacy”–but she kept feeling pulled back to Monticello. She continued researching her ancestry, and discovered she was also related to Peter Hemings, Jefferson’s longtime cook.

“As I learned more about my family and as I began to connect and confirmed ties with Jefferson and learned about my ancestors, this place started to feel like home to me,” she says.

White says she still feels “tingly” when she walks into the Granger-Hemings kitchen exhibit at the end of the south wing. The space tells the stories of enslaved cooks Ursula Granger, and Sally Hemings’ brothers, Peter and James (who made Monticello known for its French cuisine), and shows the imprint of what the kitchen looked like from an archaeological standpoint.

Fraser Neiman, Monticello’s director of archaeology, points out three indentations in the dirt wall in the trench adjacent to the exhibit, the place where Jefferson’s original stove would have gone (it was replaced with a French-inspired stew stove that used coals and induction for cooking on a stovetop). The cellar kitchen was part of the oldest standing building Jefferson constructed at Monticello in 1770 (his living quarters were on top), and plans drawn in Jefferson’s handwriting show his idea for the kitchen below.

Dairymaids produced cream, butter and soft cheese stored in The Dairy (now a restored room in the south wing) for the lavish meals that Thomas Jefferson served. Photo by Eze Amos.

According to Neiman, his team, which has done archaeological digs all across the property, usually has a roadmap going in, but they never know if they’ll find evidence that the space matches a drawing, or if the sketch was merely one of Jefferson’s “doodles.” In this case, the drawing of the stew stove and dresser countertop matched the remains Neiman’s team uncovered, including an original fireplace. This space, which housed men’s bathrooms most recently, was preserved after Jefferson moved the kitchen closer to the main house in 1802, and workmen raised the cellar floor three and a half feet to match the grade of the rest of the south wing. The dirt dumped on top to fill in the kitchen space kept intact evidence of what existed before—and kept the soil that Granger and the Hemingses and countless other people walked on every day undisturbed.

“From the moment they started pulling things down to the moment they’re putting something old and something new together, this has been an amazing experience, eye-opening for me,” White says. “I feel a sense of gratitude to the researchers, historians, carpenters and brick masons who all worked together. I feel a real appreciation for their work as a colleague, but as a descendant I feel a real sense of gratitude.”

In a gentleman’s agreement, Peter Hemings, a dignified man who worked as cook, brewer and tailor, was sold after Jefferson died to Jefferson’s nephew for $1 and given his freedom. White says it’s hard to imagine what that must have been like for her great, great, great grandfather—what life must have been like for all the enslaved people at Monticello. With tears in her eyes, she glances out a small window, and says, “They’re all family. They’re still here.”

Hand-painted Chinese porcelain plate fragments were among the recovered items during the archaeological excavation of the Granger-Hemings kitchen. Photo by Eze Amos.

A room of her own

The main feature in the Life of Sally Hemings exhibit is a plain dress form, which serves as a backdrop
for the images that are projected onto it, as well as the wraparound screen behind it, while passages from Hemings’ son’s memoir are used to reveal
more about his mother’s life. Niya Bates was part of the team that constructed the exhibit, and she says when they first started conceptualizing it, their historian sides threatened to win over as they gravitated toward displaying the information in a typical exhibit setting. But an outside exhibition firm told them that Madison Hemings’ memoir reads more like poetry—and suggested an interactive, immersive experience using his words.

“It’s the most beautiful way we could have expressed her story,” Bates says. “It’s the closest we can get to having her voice without actually having her.”

Two panels flanking the entrance to the exhibit serve the dual purposes of providing biographical information about Hemings as a world traveler, seamstress, mother, daughter, liberator and inherited property, and leaning into the Jefferson-Hemings controversy by outlining DNA evidence of the pair’s relationship. They also provide a look at historians’ and Hemings’ descendants’ views on an enslaved woman’s lack of legal right to consent to a sexual relationship with her master, and the unequal power masters held.

Hemings was born in 1773 to John Wayles (Martha Jefferson’s father) and his enslaved servant, Elizabeth Hemings, thus making her and Jefferson’s wife half-sisters. When Martha came to live at Monticello she brought Hemings, then a toddler, and Hemings’ mother and siblings with her as “inherited property.” When Jefferson went to live in Paris during his time as United States Minister to France, Hemings worked there for two and a half years as a servant in his household. At age 16, Hemings, who was legally free in France, refused to return to Monticello unless she enjoyed “extraordinary privileges” that ensured she would be allowed to raise her children and do light work such as sewing. In addition, she got Jefferson to promise to free her future children at age 21. Hemings’ son, Madison, refers to his mother as Jefferson’s concubine in his writing (Hemings gave birth to at least six of Jefferson’s children). Hemings saw two of her surviving sons (Madison and Eston) gain legal freedom in Jefferson’s will, and she had limited contact with her two eldest children (Beverly and Harriet) after they left Monticello and entered into Washington, D.C.’s white society (three of Hemings’ grandparents were of European descent). Hemings lived unofficially free in Charlottesville from Jefferson’s death in 1826 until her death in 1835.

“I think there are a lot of elements that are different than people might expect in a story about an enslaved woman, like her travel to Paris and her being allowed to live with her family,” Bates says. “All different elements about Sally Hemings’ life could be quite surprising, which is why we wanted to give people that space. This could be pretty emotional for a lot of people, especially the descendants, or anyone with a connection to this history.”

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