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Understanding President Jefferson and Hemings an approach to tackling race and American memory

Thomas Jefferson portrait
Wikimedia Commons

Many Americans revere Thomas Jefferson as a founding father establishing the principles of a young republic. Jefferson was also a slave owner and DNA suggests he fathered children with Sally Hemings. What do we do with that information today?

Two scholars visiting Grand Valley’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies tackle the troubled crossroads of race and American memory.

“What’s the point of talking about Jefferson at this time moment since he seems to represent a past we are reputiating.”

Historian Peter S. Onuf is retired Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of the University of Virginia. He explains Jefferson owned slaves and had a relationship with enslaved Sally Heming and that this is not something to put in the rearview mirror.

“Because I think we need to understand Thomas Jefferson and we need to understand Sally Hemings better. We need to put them into a context that’s not our context to get a better perspective on what our context might be.”

After the two-term, African-American Presidency of Barack Obama, Annette Gordon-Reed who is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the book The Hemingses of Monticello,  tackles the racial tension and polarization that has followed since. She points to Jefferson as co-drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the premise that all men are created equal.

“The truth is that he is a way into some really, really difficult topics about race, about slavery, about religion, about the nature of government, about political participation. Jefferson believed in the people in a way that we have questions about now, you know, who are the people how do we constitute ourselves as the people? What are the responsibilities of citizens, about political participation? He actually thought the way out of problems was for the people to get involved.”

Gordon-Reed and Onuf contend Jefferson’s questions challenge today’s America to answer who we are?

Patrick Center, WGVU News.