The Puzzle of Race at Monticello

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History has a current exhibition on Slavery at Monticello, which is well worth checking out.  I toured it yesterday.  Anyone who has slogged through Annette Gordon-Reed’s immense work, The Hemingses of Monticello, will not find much that is terribly new.  But I did learn something that brought home — one more time — the puzzle of race at Monticello and in America.

The exhibition focuses on several of the “privileged” slave families at Monticello.  These included the Grangers, who came to occupy managerial positions at Jefferson’s plantation, and the Hemingses.  The Hemings clan descended from Elizabeth Hemings, who bore several children by Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles.  Her chlidren became highly trusted servants for Jefferson.  And her daughter, Sally Hemings, is widely thought to have been the mother of several children with Jefferson, though the matter is still disputed.

What startled me at the exhibition, though, was that eight male descendants of Elizabeth Hemings fought for the Union during the Civil War.  Okay, that’s not all that startling.  But four of them fought as black soldiers in black units, and four fought as white soldiers in white units.  Col. John Wayles Jefferson, one of the descendants, commanded white troops at the Battle of Vicksburg.

Colonel John Wayles Jefferson, Union Army

Only in America.

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