Fair Park's New Exhibit Asks How Thomas Jefferson Could Own Slaves

Gayle White is a descendent of Thomas Jefferson.
Gayle White is a descendent of Thomas Jefferson.
Karen Gavis
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Dallas will soon get a first look at an expanded exhibit of relics that shed light on the life of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved concubine.

If their relationship involved more than the obvious and occurred in another era, Hemings might have been first lady.

The African American Museum at Fair Park will host "Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello Paradox of Liberty" from Sept. 22 through Dec. 31.

“What we’ve done at Monticello, we’ve given back to Sally Hemings her humanity,” says Gayle White, the home's community engagement officer, who is also a descendent of Jefferson and the Hemings family.

Hemings was the daughter of a slave woman and the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. After Martha died, Hemings traveled with Jefferson as a teenager to Paris, where they began their relationship. Jefferson, who penned the words “all men are created equal,” owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime. He also fathered six of Hemings’ children. But White says Hemings has always been just “an appendage” to Jefferson until now.

“She was extraordinary,” White says of her ancestor, a world traveler who negotiated with one of the most powerful men in the world and whose brother Peter [White’s ancestor], was sold on Monticello’s grounds after Jefferson died.

White says she had heard talk among family members that they were descendants of Jefferson, but that “back then, if you had something like that in your family” it was kept on the down-low. DNA testing has since proved she is related to Jefferson and Hemings.

When White first visited Monticello a few years ago, she says, she saw the kitchen where her family had worked and reached down to pick up some of the dirt from the ground. She held the earth in her hand, felt it between her fingers and even rubbed some of it on her skin.

“I was connected,” she says.

"Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello Paradox of Liberty" debuted in 2012 at the Smithsonian, says Dallas’ District 7 Councilman Kevin Felder, who worked to bring the display to Dallas.

Felder says he and White had shared a cab ride a few years ago. He was fascinated by her family history and the exhibit, he says, so he contacted the African American Museum’s president, Harry Robinson Jr.

“Robinson realizes this exhibit delivers a powerful message,” Felder says, explaining that it can also educate, inspire and promote understanding. He says he’s pleased the announcement of the exhibit was made Juneteenth, which celebrates the day Texas slaves got word in Galveston that they were free.

“The integrity and quality of this exhibit is stellar,” Robinson says. “This comes during the state fair, meaning that thousands of people will have the opportunity to view this.”

Since debuting at the Smithsonian, the exhibit, which contains more than 300 documents, artifacts and works of art, has traveled to Atlanta, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

“Dallas will be the first to host this updated exhibit,” Robinson says.

Phillip Jones, president of VisitDallas, says the presentation will come from a slave's perspective.

“We believe this will have a tremendous impact on the thousands and thousands of schoolchildren who will visit during the state fair,” he says.

Bishop T.D. Jakes, senior pastor of the Potter’s House and honorary chair of the exhibit, said via video that the exhibit provides a lens for looking at questions such as “How could the author of the Declaration of Independence own slaves?” and “How could 20 percent of the population of the new United States, founded on the principles of liberty and equality, live in bondage?"

“It’s a story that everyone needs to see or hear,” he says. “We encourage everyone from all walks of life to attend.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who also spoke via video, says the exhibit “chronicles a period of history we must never forget.”

The African American Museum is at 3536 Grand Ave. in Fair Park. Tickets to the exhibit are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 3-12 and free for children 2 and younger. On Thursdays, seniors 65 and older get in free.

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