CHARLOTTESVILLE — The room where historians believe Sally Hemings slept was just steps away from Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom. But in 1941, the caretakers of Monticello turned it into a restroom.
The floor tiles and bathroom stalls covered over the story of the enslaved woman, who was owned by Jefferson and had a long-term relationship with him. Their involvement was a scandal during his life and was denied for decades by his descendants. But many historians now believe the third president of the United States was the father of her six children.
Time, and perhaps shame, erased all physical evidence of her presence at Jefferson’s home here, a building so famous that it is depicted on the back of the nickel.
Now the floor tiles have been pulled up and the room is under restoration — and Hemings’s life is poised to become a larger part of the story told at Monticello.
When the long-hidden space opens to the public next year, it will mark a dramatic shift in the way one of the nation’s most revered Founding Fathers is portrayed to the more than 440,000 visitors who tour this landmark annually.
It’s part of a $35 million restoration project that will bolster Monticello’s infrastructure but also reconstruct and showcase buildings where enslaved people lived and worked. The man who wrote the words “all men are created equal” in 1776 was master of a 5,000-acre working plantation who over the course of his life owned 607 slaves.
“Visitors will come up here and understand that there was no place on this mountaintop that slavery wasn’t,” said Christa Dierksheide, a Monticello historian. “Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by people, and the vast majority of those people were enslaved.”