February 24

All in the family at Monticello

Monticello Window
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
–Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

By now, the relationship that existed between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is pretty much common knowledge. From the Monticello website:

The claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, entered the public arena during Jefferson’s first term as president, and it has remained a subject of discussion and disagreement for two centuries. Based on documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (January 2000) remains the most comprehensive analysis of this historical topic. Ten years later, TJF and most historians believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson’s records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings.

While this relationship has been fodder for news headlines for centuries now, did you know that Sally’s half-sister was Martha, Jefferson’s wife? From Monticello:

According to Madison Hemings, Sally’s mother Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807) was the daughter of an African woman and an English sea captain. By Madison Hemings’s and other accounts, Sally Hemings and some of her siblings were the children of John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, making her the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748-1782). Elizabeth Hemings and her children lived at John Wayles’ plantation during his lifetime.

This past week, after a week-long residency at Bucknell University as part of the Presidential Arts Initiative, I spent a day at Monticello. I’ve been working on a new piece based on Sally and half-sister Martha, in collaboration with writers Tim Appelo and Carmen Gillespie as well as visual artist Tori Ellison.


Of course, the paradox of Monticello – Jefferson’s vision – was that it was built, in part, by enslaved men and women. (See this online exhibit which explores this…). In this new piece, we hope to explore the relationship between the half-sisters with this paradox in mind.