- Historic Sites
Children Of Monticello
In Virginia, a quarrel is going on about who can be allowed to lie in a family graveyard. Because the family is Thomas Jefferson’s, the outcome of the dispute is important to every American.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
Last year, we buried our father next to his wife and a few feet away from his elder sister. I know where my ancestors are buried going all the way back to Mr. Jefferson himself. But what about Sally Hemings? Where is she buried?
When my brother and sisters and I walked into the graveyard last May, we could see along its east fence the headstones of five generations of our family. Our great-great-grandfather William Lewis Randolph is buried there, close to our greatuncle Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Our great-grandmother Mary Walker Randolph is buried alongside our great-grandfather William Mann Randolph. (They were second or third cousins, a tendency to marry within the family running through several generations of Randolphs.) Our great-uncle Hollins Nicholas Randolph and his wife, Ginny, are buried in that row, and so are our great-aunt Mary Walker Randolph, whom everyone called Miss Moo, our great-aunt Agnes Dillon Randolph, and our great-aunt Carolina Ramsay Randolph. All of them were born and raised at Edgehill, the plantation near Monticello that Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s sonin-law, inherited from his father. We buried our aunt Mary Truscott Bruce a few years ago, in 1998 we buried our mother, Anne Harloe Truscott, and last year we buried our father next to his wife and only a few feet away from his elder sister. I know where my ancestors are buried, going all the way back to Mr. Jefferson himself. But what about Sally Hemings? Where is she buried?
Well, more than 200 years after slaves labored and were born and died at Monticello, the location of the slave graveyard is still unknown. The Monticello historian Cinder Stanton believes Sally Hemings’s grave may be on a parcel of land near the University of Virginia Medical School. The lot was sold to Madison and Eston Hemings, Sally’s sons, after they were freed upon Jefferson’s death, and the 1833 Virginia census reveals that Sally was then still living with them in a house on the property. She is thought to have been buried behind the house, somewhere on the acre her sons owned. Freed slaves usually held no community-owned land that could have been used for a church or a graveyard and thus often buried their dead where they lived. If indeed Sally was interred behind her sons’ house, her body today lies beneath the parking lot of a Hampton Inn.
The graveyard at Monticello should properly be called the Owner’s Graveyard, or the Master’s Graveyard, because the graves within the fence make no mention of, nor do they provide space for, the hundreds of slaves who were owned by Thomas Jefferson (and by his daughters) or these slaves’ descendants. Sally is not buried there because none of the slaves or their descendants “enjoy” the same right I do. The graveyard became an issue two years ago, after the death of Robert Cooley, a fourth-generation great-grandson of Thomas Woodson, Sally Hemings’s first son.
When Cooley died, his daughter Michele called the then president of the Monticello Association and asked permission to bury her father at Monticello. Robert Cooley had spent his lifetime working to get the descendants of Sally Hemings recognized as descendants of Thomas Jefferson, and it had long been his wish to be laid to rest at Monticello. The president of the Monticello Association sent a brief reply saying no.
I had known Robert Cooley; he had had a distinguished career as a civil rights attorney in Richmond, and when I learned that Michele’s request had been turned down, it made me all the more determined to invite the Cooleys, and any other Hemings descendants who wished to attend, to be my guests at the 1999 reunion of the Monticello Association.
Some 35 of them accepted. When they walked through the gate to the graveyard on a warm Sunday morning in May, it was the first time, but certainly not the last, the descendants of Sally Hemings would participate in the annual service paying tribute to Thomas Jefferson.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the cemetery at Monticello turned into a flash point in a 200-year-old controversy. At first, I blamed racism for the opposition of Monticello Association members to the Hemingses. But over the last two years, my opinion has changed. While racism explains the intransigence of a small percentage of members, it doesn’t apply at all to the far larger majority. So if racism isn’t to blame, what is?
A family’s natural insularity explains part of it, and this is especially true about the graveyard, but solemn attachment to a place, even to a family burial ground, does not explain the visceral and largely negative reaction many in the Monticello Association have had to Hemings membership. Which is why the history of how the Association has dealt with the issue of who is and isn’t part of the Jefferson family is worth exploring.