When the door is closed, you can’t see anything at all

Jefferson’s Monticello has been getting an update for several years, which included restoring Mulberry Row where Jefferson’s many slaves lived. Philip Kennicott at the Post starts with an arresting detail:

You cannot see Thomas Jefferson’s mansion, Monticello, from the small room burrowed into the ground along the south wing of his estate. When the door is closed, you can’t see anything at all, because it is a windowless room, with a low ceiling and damp walls. But this was, very likely, the room inhabited by Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore six of Jefferson’s children, a woman about whom little is known, who lived her life as Jefferson’s property, was considered his concubine, was a source of scandal and a political liability, and yet who might be considered the first lady to the third president of the United States if that didn’t presume her relationship to Jefferson was voluntary.

The detail is the room. It was underground, and it was windowless. It was like a grave. It was under White Man’s beautiful posh house, and it was used for storing his sex slave. Jefferson owned a lot of books, a lot of bottles of expensive French wine, and a lot of people. He kept his very own on-demand vagina in a hole under his house.

Another fun fact: Sally Hemings was his wife’s half-sister, and thus of course his daughters’ half-aunt. They shared a grandfather. This was a commonplace in the slaveowning South, but it’s striking nonetheless.

On Saturday, Monticello will open the room to the public, with a small exhibition devoted to the life of Hemings and the Hemings family. Reclaiming this space, which previously had been used as a public restroom, marks the completion of a five-year plan called the Mountaintop Project, which has seen significant changes to the beloved estate of the founding father. Using archaeology and other evidence, Monticello curators have restored Mulberry Row, where enslaved people lived and labored, and made changes (including to the wallpaper, paint and furnishings) inside the mansion, restored the north and south wings, and opened the upstairs rooms to the public on special tours. But symbolically and emotionally, the restoration of the Hemings room is the heart of the new interpretation of Monticello, and it makes tangible a relationship that has been controversial since rumors of “Dusky Sally” became part of American political invective in the early 19th century.

“Our goal has been to get the stories back and get the landscape back, so people understand the proximity of Jefferson’s house to this community,” says Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates the historical site. “People used to think, ‘Oh, the slaves were down on the plantation.’ No, they were right here in the middle of it.”

To the extent that he was humane in his role as patriarch — “Was he a good master?” is still the most asked question, according to Monticello tour guides — it was because he conceived of Monticello as embodying an Enlightenment ideal of stewardship. When he encouraged leniency in the discipline of enslaved men, it was because severe punishment “would destroy their value” and “degrade them in their own eyes by the whip.” Rationality and efficiency were the governing ideas of the estate, just as they were the ideals for the larger governance of the nation. Sally Hemings’s room wasn’t in the line of sight from the stately rooms that Jefferson inhabited, and one senses that for Jefferson, the problem of slavery needed to be kept carefully out of sight when thinking about the future of the nation he had founded.

The wolf by the ear.

But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.
– Jefferson to John Holmes, (discussing slavery and the Missouri question), April 22, 1820

Meanwhile, keep them out of sight of the house.

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