"To make the exhibit possible, curators had to wrestle with a host of thorny questions. How to accurately portray a woman for whom no photograph exists? (The solution: casting a shadow on a wall.) How to handle the skepticism of those who remain unpersuaded by the mounting evidence that Jefferson was indeed the father of Hemings’s children? (The solution: tell the story entirely in quotes from her son Madison.)
And, thorniest of all, in an era of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo: How to describe the decades-long sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemings? Should it be described as rape?
“We really can’t know what the dynamic was,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. “Was it rape? Was there affection? We felt we had to present a range of views, including the most painful one.”
After a DNA test in 1998, the nonprofit foundation, which owns Monticello, determined that there was a “high probability” that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings’s children, and that he likely fathered them all. The new exhibit asserts Jefferson’s paternity as a fact.