“Archaeologists at Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, Monticello, are unearthing the room where Sally Hemings is believed to have lived, allowing for a new way to tell the story of the enslaved people who served our third president. The excavation has once again reminded us that 241 years after the United States was founded, many Americans still don’t know how to reconcile one of our nation’s original sins with the story of its Founding Fathers.
Just before the Fourth of July, NBC News ran a feature on the room, setting off a spate of coverage about the dig. Many of these stories described Hemings, the mother of six children with Jefferson, as the former president’s “mistress.” The Inquisitr, the Daily Mail, AOL and Cox Media Group all used the word (though Cox later updated its wording). So did an NBC News tweet that drew scathing criticism, though its story accurately called her “the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.” The Washington Post also used “mistress” in an article about Hemings’s room in February.
Language like that elides the true nature of their relationship, which is believed to have begun when Hemings, then 14 years old, accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to live with Jefferson, then 44, in Paris. She wasn’t Jefferson’s mistress; she was his property. And he raped her.
Such revisionist history about slavery is, unfortunately, still quite common. In 2015, Texas rolled out what many saw as a “whitewashed ” version of its social studies curriculum that referred to enslaved Africans as “immigrants” and “workers” and minimized slavery’s impact on the Civil War. One concerned parent spoke out, forcing a textbook publisher to revise some of the teaching materials.
In a speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, Michelle Obama reminded Americans that no less a symbol of our government than the White House was built by those in bondage. In response, then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly offered a softer, gentler take: Those enslaved workers were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government,” he said. That they had no choice in their food, lodging or whether they even wanted to do the backbreaking work of building Washington by hand was nowhere to be found in O’Reilly’s version.
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Romanticizing Hemings and Jefferson’s so-called relationship minimizes the deadly imbalance of power that black people suffered under before the Civil War. It also obscures our collective history as a nation that moved from being built on the blood, bones and backs of enslaved African Americans and indigenous people, to being the imperfect, hopeful and yet still unequal country we are today.”
Four of our first five U.S. Presidents had no visible means of support other than the free labor provided by enslaved African Americans. In other words, they were incapable of, or chose not to, make an “honest” living, essentially freeloading off of “welfare” provided by their enslaved workers.
And it wasn’t just the south. Much of the prosperity of the New England merchant class rested directly or indirectly on the profitable slave trade or the agricultural products produced by slave labor in the south. As pointed out in the article, enslaved black workers literally built our nation’s capitol.
Nor were religious institutions absolved of the taint. Georgetown University (where I teach at the Law School), a Jesuit institution, recently had to come to grips with the fact that it sustained itself by literally selling black families “down the river” where many of them were permanently separated.
Even after the Civil War, which, contrary to apologist historians, was driven almost entirely by slavery and keeping blacks from sharing in democracy, the white power structure in both the north and the south cooperated in undermining the 14th Amendment for more than a century. Today, politicians like Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, and Kris Kobach, assisted by their “groupies” like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, seek to turn back the clock on our nation’s hard-earned progress toward racial equality.
Why as a nation do we have so much difficulty acknowledging the immoral conduct of many of our founders and the overwhelming debt we owe to those black Americans whose skills, perseverance, and hard work literally built America?