Sally Hemings is part of American history. The Jefferson estate is finally honoring her.

Thomas Jefferson's historic estate has gotten a major facelift to reflect its full story.

He famously wrote that "all men are created equal," and now his estate is taking major steps to honor that claim.

The curators at Monticello have updated Jefferson's estate to include the stories of hundreds of slaves who literally helped build the home of the founding father, with a central focus on Sally Hemings, who gave birth to six of his children. A room believed to have served as Hemings' living quarters has been updated to reflect a more full history of her life and contributions.


"It's not a re-creation of what her room would've looked like at the time but rather a presentation of Sally Hemings as a fully dimensioned human being: a mother, a sister, a daughter, a world traveler," said Gayle Jessup White, a Hemings and Jefferson descendant.

It's the first time tours of the Jefferson estate will show all visitors the slavery narrative — past tours gave visitors the option to experience a Jefferson-only narrative or to take a separate tour that also told the story of his slaves.

Photo by Alain Jocard/Getty Images.

Sally Hemings' living descendants were brought into the process as well.

By bringing Jessup White into the process, the Monticello estate is moving beyond simply telling the uncomfortable aspects of Jefferson's history and instead making those facts part of the larger woven fabric of his, and America's, life.

And to their credit, the curators of Monticello are facing some of the most painful questions surrounding Jefferson's legacy, including whether his relationship with Hemings was sexual assault.

"There are a lot of people who believe rape is too polarizing a word," said Monticello public historian Niya Bates. "But it was a conversation that we knew we could not avoid. It's a conversation the public is already having."

There's also the fact that no known photographs of Hemings exist, which the exhibitors addressed by casting a shadow meant to represent her figure onto the wall of her living quarters.

"It's not just about Thomas Jefferson, it's about the people who made Thomas Jefferson's life possible," Jessup White said. "At Monticello we're giving humanity to people long forgotten. And the people to whom we're giving humanity are my people — they're my family."

Photo via Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Being open and honest about history will give America the best chance of being strong going forward.

As we increasingly face the demons of our nation's past, we're sometimes left with a painful choice: to disown individuals who played instrumental roles in our nation's history or to willfully ignore the mistakes and even crimes they committed along the way.

The changes at Monticello show there is a better way that fully acknowledges the truth of America's history by honoring all the people who lived and suffered for its benefit.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

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Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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