Updated: May 21, 2020
Season 1 Foundations
Episode 04 Know Your Resources: A Place to Call Home PT 2
“It seems especially appropriate to tell one part of the story of slavery through life at a place that holds such symbolic importance for many Americans —Monticello. For it is there that we can find the absolute best, and the absolute worst, that we have been as Americans.”
- Annette Gordon-Reed, 2008
On the last episode of American Origin Stories, we heard from licensed preservation architect Jobie Hill and learned of the work she is doing to create the first national database that focuses on the homes of enslaved Black Americans. Her primary goal is to humanize the people who lived within by showing the craftsmanship, hidden gems, and stories of life on the plantation.
One place where hundreds of enslaved people called home is Monticello—Thomas Jefferson’s primary plantation located in Virginia. So, on this episode, we will personalize this history by discussing what life was like on Monticello. Jobie Hill was tasked with recreating Mulberry Row, the slave quarters to many who lived and worked on Jefferson's plantation.
Construction of recreated slave quarters on Mulberry Road.
"Jefferson’s various names for this place -- 'Mulberry-row in 1782, 'Mulberry Lane' in 1793, and “Mulberry walk” in 1808 -- imply that it was simply a plantation road named for the pairs of mulberry trees planted alongside it. But for the people who lived and worked there, it was much more. For the young Isaac Granger, it was where he lived with his parents, Ursula and George, and then later worked, manning the tinsmithing operation in the “storehouse for iron.” For Richard Richardson, who lived for a time in the “workmen’s house,” it was a place that he served as brickmason, plasterer, and overseer before heading to Jamaica, where he inherited property from a rich uncle. For George Bradby, a free black man, it was the place where he lived with his enslaved wife, Jenny, while also working for Jefferson." What is Mulberry Row? by Christa Dierksheide
Hemings was born enslaved in 1774, a biracial person believed to be the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha. Eventually, she would be enslaved by Martha and Thomas Jefferson. During her enslavement at Monticello, when Sally was just 14 years old she traveled to Paris, where Jefferson was living at the time, to act as his daughter’s servant. While there, Jefferson—then 44-years-old—had sex with Sally.
She was his property, she was much younger than him, and she had minimal power in their relationship. Many historians would classify this dynamic as nonconsensual – as rape. The two ultimately had four children grow to adulthood, two of whom left the plantation (without pursuit) and passed for white, and two who were freed in Jefferson's will and claimed Jefferson/Hemings lineage.
Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson's grandson, Beverly Frederick Jefferson (left) and sons pictured, circa 1900s. No images of Sally or her children exist.
Quotes from a NY Times Interview of Descendants
“After the DNA test came out, my brother and I thought the Hemingses were trying to muscle their way into the graveyard. We felt like we were being railroaded. But once I started listening to them, I realized that most of them weren’t interested in the graveyard at all. They just wanted to be recognized as descendants.” - David Works, white descendant
“If I could ask Thomas Jefferson anything, I’d ask, “Did you have feelings for Sally?” Because he left nothing behind. This man wrote everything down. Everything. He knew that people would be looking back at him. He wanted that. But there was nothing about her. It hurts. As descendants, and because of his character, we want to believe that it wasn’t just a slave-master rape situation. I don’t know why we want to believe that. But we do. We just do.”
– descendant Brenda Yurkoski, of the Hemings line.
Why does this matter?
Thomas Jefferson’s contributions are the core of the American Origin Story. As a founding father he helped shape the nation – but not just in its understanding of freedom but also in its allowance of a paradoxical oppression. Jefferson was unique in that he had an incredible number of accomplishments that changed the nation and the world. But he was ordinary in his thoughts of racial superiority, his disregard for enslaved human safety over profit, and his biracial offspring with a 14-year-old girl whom he considered his property.
His descendants also represent the Origin Story of many Black Americans. Not all have a famous ancestor but most have both African and European ancestry that can be traced to slavery. More on this in the next episode.
And if we are devoted to learning untold American history, we must apply it to all of history, complicated or not.
Life on Monticello was hard for the enslaved. But still, they were able to find a space for home, a place to commune and build internal strength and resilience. And thanks to Jobie Hill, Mulberry Row has been restored by an architect concerned with both the structures and the value of those who built and lived in them. So, at Monticello and beyond, the meaning of home for the enslaved will live on.
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Story, Annette Gordon-Reed, 2008
NY Times Sally Hemings Descendants, June 16, 2018.