Press Releases Inside UVA (keyword/s)

Coming online summer 1999.

For Jounalists



University Press of Virginia Launches New Jeffersonian America Series

Leading American Historians To Discuss Implications Of Jefferson-Hemings Relationship

Feb. 16, 1999 -- Some of the nation's foremost experts on Thomas Jefferson's era, race and slavery will gather in Charlottesville March 5 and 6 to discuss a wide range of issues that Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings has raised for historians and for Americans generally.

The conference will include a public panel at the University of Virginia March 6 in conjunction with a new book series on Jeffersonian America being launched by the University Press of Virginia.

The publication last fall of a DNA study indicating Jefferson was probably the father of at least one child with Hemings has sparked extensive national debate both about the way American history is presented and about contemporary racial understanding. "But if there has been much heat, there has been woefully little light," said Peter S. Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia and co-organizer of the conference, which will result in a Jefferson-Hemings book as part of the new series.

The conference on "Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory and Civic Culture" will include three Pulitzer Prize-winning historians and other leading authorities among some 20 invited scholars. Their academic workshops to discuss essay drafts will conclude with a public panel discussion at U.Va. from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, March 6. The panel, which will feature historians' remarks and audience questions, will be held in Old Cabell Hall Auditorium and will be moderated by Julian Bond, national chairman of the NAACP and U.Va. professor of history.

An important element that has emerged from the debate is that Hemings deserves historians' attention not simply as a symbol but as an historical actor in her own right, conference organizers said. They also hope that a better historical understanding of early American life can grow from an exploration of the social world of Monticello, and ultimately give a richer understanding of who we are as a people than that which grows from viewing Jefferson or other founders as mythical figures.

Among key participants will be Annette Gordon-Reed of New York Law School, whose highly praised 1997 book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," published by the University Press of Virginia, argued well before the DNA results that most white historians had not taken a fair and balanced look at other evidence suggesting the intimate relationship between the author of the Declaration of Independence and his house slave and had relied too heavily on the authority of previous scholars. Gordon-Reed will be on the editorial board of the new scholarly series.

Other conference participants will include:

+ Reginald Butler, director of U.Va.'s Carter G. Woodson Institute of Afro-American and African Studies and author of a forthcoming study of free blacks in central Virginia

+ Dr. Eugene Foster, the retired U.Va. pathology professor who coordinated the DNA tests of Jefferson and Hemings descendants

+ Rhys Isaac of the College of William and Mary, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790"

+ Winthrop Jordan of the University of Mississippi, National Book Award-winning author of the seminal book on early American race relations, "White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812"

+ Jan Ellen Lewis of Rutgers University, conference co-organizer and a leading authority on early America whose works include "The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson's Virginia"

+ Philip Morgan, editor of the William and Mary Quarterly and an expert on slavery whose works include the prize-winning "Slave Counterpoint"

+ Jack N. Rakove of Stanford University, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Original Meanings" and other key works about America's founding

+ Lucia Stanton, Monticello historian and an expert on Monticello slave life

+ Brenda Stevenson of UCLA, a specialist on Virginia social history and author of the widely hailed "Black and White Together"

+ Gordon S. Wood of Brown University, the leading authority on the history of the early republic and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Radicalism of the American Revolution"

"Much more is at stake in our approach to this relationship than the mere question of paternity," Onuf said. "We must ask ourselves if we are prepared to accept the full implications of our complicated racial history, a history that was powerfully shaped by the institution of slavery."

The DNA tests wouldn't have been conducted in the first place if there hadn't already been strong historical evidence for the possibility of sexual relationship, he noted. Gordon-Reed's study shows that arguments from authority and about "character" prevented historians from

weighing this existing evidence in a balanced way. "We are asking historian colleagues to reconsider their own assumptions and practices in the wake of the new consensus about the likelihood of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship," Onuf said.

"'History' is the story historians tell. This is an appropriate moment to reflect on how those stories are constructed and the purposes they serve."

Among contemporary questions the conference will consider:

+ How should Americans think about our "founding fathers"?

+ To what extent does a vital civic culture depend on the stature of Jefferson and other figures in the national "pantheon"?

+ Has Jefferson become a national embarrassment?

+ What happens to the pantheon itself when we insist on the historical significance of neglected men and women such as Hemings?

"The great contradiction between Jefferson's life as a slaveholder and his libertarian professions is already in plain view," Onuf said. "The great political principles he articulated and that Americans cherish will not be compromised by exploring and, perhaps to some extent explaining, this contradiction."

"Our leading goal is to find out where we now stand -- as historians and engaged citizens -- with respect to the history and living legacy of slavery and race relations in our national culture."

The conference is sponsored by the U.Va. Department of History, the University Press of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, with support from U.Va.'s College of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Public History, and offices of the President and Provost.

For additional information please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


UVa News Sources UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa News Sources UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page

Top news site edited by Jane Ford (; maintained by Karen Asher (; releases posted by Suzanne Raileanu (
Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-Jun-1999 11:57:05 EDT
© 1999 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia
Topnews Information: (804) 924-4298.

News Sources UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page News Sources UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa News Sources UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar UVa Home Page UVa News Sources UVa Top News UVa WebCalendar Uva Home Page