Pulitzer winner discusses Monticello's Hemings family
Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed delivers the Department of History's William Watson Harrington Lecture.
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8:29 a.m., May 11, 2009----Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, discussed the importance of individualizing Hemings family members as she delivered the University of Delaware Department of History's William Watson Harrington Lecture on Thursday night in the Trabant University Center Theatre.

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Historians have tended to write about enslaved people as groups rather than individuals, and to overlook their individual witness and stories, said Gordon-Reed, who is a professor of law at the New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers University, said.

That was the case in Gordon-Reed's early research on Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings family, as she found that people who wrote on the subject did not give “enough credence to the stories of black people who talked about what happened there” and “too much credence to Jefferson's legal, white family.”

Gordon-Reed said she found that one of the reasons historians dismissed the testimony of the slaves when it came to Jefferson and Hemings was that while the historians had much information about Jefferson's legal family, they had very little about the African Americans who spoke about the situation.

“It's easy to dismiss people or not pay attention to them when you don't know anything about them,” she said. “If you don't know them in any way, you don't have a stake in them. You have a stake in people that you know.”

According to Gordon-Reed, this is one of the biggest problems when it comes to historical scholarship on enslaved people, the fact that, “the way slaves are typically written about is as a group. There is sort of a group identity that is supposed to convey their circumstances, and not slaves as individuals.”

Many people will simply focus on the system of slavery and not on the slaves themselves. But as Gordon-Reed pointed out, “Individual lives can tell you a great deal about a system, or certain aspects of a system.”

That's what Gordon-Reed set out to do with her book, The Hemingses of Monticello; she wanted to “tell the story of the Hemings family in a way that would make people have a stake in them -- not think of them just as enslaved people living at Monticello with Jefferson, but as Sally Hemings, James Hemings, Elizabeth Hemings.”

Gordon-Reed chronicled members of the family and not only are the Hemings' portrayed as individuals, but their lives vary greatly from one to another.

There is James Hemings, the brother of Sally Hemings, who goes with Jefferson to Paris to train to be a chef because Jefferson wanted his own personal French chef. James Hemings came back to America, worked for many years and eventually earned his freedom, and then traveled back to Europe where he tragically descended into alcoholism.

By stressing the individuality of the Hemings family members, Gordon-Reed's readers can relate to them and in some cases, may even identify their own relatives' personal experiences with those of the Hemings family.

For instance, Gordon-Reed said a reader came up and said that the story of Sally Hemings arriving in France at the age of 14 reminded him of his Italian grandmother who came to Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century when she was 16 and didn't speak any English.

After speaking with the man, Gordon-Reed said she thought to herself, “That is exactly what I wanted. Now, I know an Italian girl coming into Ellis Island in the early 20th century is not an enslaved girl going to France in the 18th century, but there is enough of a point of commonality, a sense of what it means to be a human being and to be isolated, to be by yourself.”

“That's what I wanted to try and do with this book,” she said. “I wanted people who were reading this to have some identification with Sally Hemings, James Hemings, these people as individuals, because I do think that's the way to get people to care about them, to feel like they have a stake in them.”

Article by Adam Thomas
Photo by Duane Perry

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