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‘She Was Part of This Family’: Jefferson Descendants Reflect on Sally Hemings Exhibit

Many who trace their roots back to the enslaved community at Monticello are expected to attend the exhibit opening.
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Hundreds of people count themselves as descendants of Thomas Jefferson. And their numbers grew substantially after a DNA test in 1998 bolstered the case for Jefferson’s paternity of the children of Sally Hemings, his slave. That revelation spawned a feud between Hemings and Jefferson descendants over who would be allowed at sprawling Jefferson meetings. To this day, some white descendants of Jefferson deny that he had a sexual relationship with Hemings.

Now, a new exhibit on Hemings opening Saturday highlights how much Monticello has changed. Jefferson’s slaves, once ignored, now have the spotlight.

Many people who trace their roots back to the enslaved community at Monticello are expected to attend the opening of the new exhibit, along with some of the white descendants of Jefferson’s acknowledged family.

Julius “Calvin” Jefferson
A retired archivist at the National Archives who grew up in Washington, D.C.

Mama’s last name was Jefferson. Twenty years ago, my mother’s friend called her up and said that people were looking for the descendants of the slave community at Monticello. At first, we were told we had no connection. But later it turned out that my third great-grandfather Robert Hughes is the great-grandson of George and Ursula Granger, the first enslaved people that Thomas Jefferson bought when he married Martha. He was also the great-grandson of Elizabeth Hemings, Sally Hemings’s mother.

They were there at the beginning of the country. When you are of African descent, you are told that we had nothing to do with that. I’ve realized that members of my family had a lot to do with that. The contributions that the slave community did at this one plantation afforded Thomas Jefferson the leisure to be the genius that he became.

I was always interested in history. I retired from the National Archives. After my second marriage went bad, I decided to move to Charlottesville to really finish doing the research on my family.

Being a slave owner, no matter how you cut it, that’s a crime against humanity. But T.J. justified it in his mind. Slavery was legal, and he believed in the rule of law. Sometimes, at the Monticello reunions, we get into arguments about it. Some people believe slavery is slavery, and no matter what you say, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. They are not going to look at the personal relationships between Thomas Jefferson and his slaves.

I really believe that Thomas Jefferson believed that all men were created equal.