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Monticello hosts Black History Month programming, descendants of enslaved people respond to the history

Published: Feb. 10, 2022 at 2:22 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 11, 2022 at 10:16 AM EST
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ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - President Thomas Jefferson owned 607 people over the course of his lifetime, including Gayle Jessup White’s ancestors.

“I’m fortunate enough to know this history. I’m a descendant from two families that were enslaved at Monticello: the Hemings and the Hubbards. However, my family represents the millions of others who were enslaved throughout American history,” White said.

Enslaved people could be found in the fields at Monticello, preparing Jefferson’s means or raising his children, who often doubled as their own.

“Jefferson did father children with a woman who he held as property named Sally Hemings. We know of at least six who he fathered, four survived to be adults. Their histories are well-documented as best they can,” Monticello’s Manager of Historic Interpretation, Brandon Dillard said.

This documentation relies heavily on Jefferson’s plantation records and memories.

“Jefferson inherited the Hemings family from his father in-law, John Wales, and John Wales’ enslaved children through Elizabeth Hemings. One of those children was Sally Hemings, which means that Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, were half-sisters,” Dillard said.

These lineages stretch hundreds of years. Cauline Yates is another descendant of the enslaved people of Monticello. She says she feels privileged to be able to trace her family tree, while many African Americans cannot.

“There are sometimes where emotions are sadness, and joy, and just unimaginable feelings to know that you’re a descendant,” Yates said.

More stories like Yates’ and White’s are told in the tours at Monticello this Black History Month. If you cannot attend an in-person, there are virtual options available, too.

Dillard says as Monticello’s Manager of Historic Interpretation, he hopes when people visit they’re able to apply this history to make for a more successful and united future.

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