Archaeologists have excavated an area of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello mansion that has astounded even the most experienced social scientists: The living quarters of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.
“This discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living. Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room,” said Gardiner Hallock, director of restoration for Jefferson’s mountaintop plantation, standing on a red-dirt floor inside a dusty rubble-stone room built in 1809. “It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being — a mother, daughter, and sister — and brings out the relationships in her life.”
Hemings’ living quarters was adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom but she remains something of an enigma: there are only four known descriptions of her. Enslaved blacksmith Isaac Granger Jefferson recalled that Hemings was “mighty near white . . . very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”
Her room — 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long — went unnoticed for decades. The space was converted into a men’s bathroom in 1941, considered by some as the final insult to Hemings’ legacy.
“For the first time at Monticello we have a physical space dedicated to Sally Hemings and her life,” Mia Magruder Dammann, a spokeswoman for Monticello, told NBCBLK. “It’s significant because it connects the entire African American arch at Monticello.”
By the late 1960s, Magruder said, the earlier bathrooms had become too small to accommodate Monticello’s growing number of visitors so local restoration architect Floyd Johnson renovated and enlarged the bathrooms in 1967.
But recently, historians studied a description provided long ago by a grandson of Jefferson who placed Hemings’ room in the home’s South Wing.
So archaeologists started digging.
Fraser Neiman, director of archeology at Monticello, said Hemings’ quarters revealed the original brick hearth and fireplace, the brick structure for a stove and the original floors from the early 1800s.
“This room is a real connection to the past,” Neiman said. “We are uncovering and discovering and we’re finding many, many artifacts.”
The Mountaintop Project is a multi-year, $35-million effort to restore Monticello as Jefferson knew it, and to tell the stories of the people — enslaved and free — who lived and worked on the 5,000-acre Virginia plantation.
In an effort to bring transparency to the grounds’ difficult past, there are tours that focus solely on the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and labored there, as well as a Hemings Family tour.
Monticello unveiled the restoration of Mulberry Row in 2015, which includes the re-creation of two slave-related buildings, the “storehouse for iron” and the Hemings cabin. In May 2015, more than 100 descendants of enslaved families participated in a tree-planting ceremony to commemorate the new buildings.
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