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Secret Room in Thomas Jefferson’s Mansion Solves 200 Year Old Mystery!

Anjali DeSimone

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Thomas Jefferson is almost universally regarded as one of the wisest men in our nation’s history. As the primary hand behind the Declaration of Independence as well as the third President of the United States, Jefferson certainly has a reputation to uphold. His home in Virginia has become one of the most popular presidential tourist destinations in the country. Recently, Jefferson’s mansion was under construction for maintenance-related issues. Workers were absolutely shocked when they uncovered a hidden room within the building. The location of the room, and what it ended up meaning, would pull Jefferson into a pit of controversy. Keep on reading to find out what was behind the hidden doors of Thomas Jefferson’s secret room.

Thomas Jefferson – The Man, Myth, and Legend.

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Anybody who knows anything about the United States will understand how important Thomas Jefferson was to the nation’s growth. Jefferson was a force in the early beginnings of the United States. From crafting the Declaration of Independence, and thus becoming a beacon of morality, to masterminding the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson has done it all.

Jefferson’s Home in Virginia

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Before Jefferson took his post in the White House upon election in 1801, he lived on the Monticello Plantation in Charlottesville, VA. Now a historical landmark, this beautiful mansion is visited by thousands of tourists every single year. At the time, Jefferson owned more than 5,000 acres of land as a result of his inheritance. 

An Overhead View

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The Monticello Plantation was erected in 1776. The name is Italian and roughly translates to the phrase, ‘Little Mountain’. During its heyday, Jefferson needed an absurd amount of workers in order to tend the 5,000 acres. While we may think of Jefferson as a beacon of morality, he was also a slave owner. 

Countless Slaves Worked the Fields

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Slave labor was certainly cheaper than paying a worker. As a result, the beautiful Monticello Plantation became a home for hundreds of slaves who were forced to work the fields day and night. They were housed in separate facilities on the grounds, away from Jefferson and his own personal company.

Researching the History of the Land

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While the plantation has a dark past, historians can’t simply look away from it. As a result, in-depth research went into the Monticello Plantation so that it could be properly recreated in modern times. They ended up finding a document, penned by one of Jefferson’s grandsons, that helped their work. Only, this document didn’t just pertain to the grounds. It mentioned a room that nobody knew existed.

A Growing Mystery

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Renovations inside of historical locations like the Monticello Plantation are not a rarity. In fact, restorations and maintenance is the largest part of what it takes to keep these buildings ‘alive’. Here, we see a bathroom that had been renovated and re-renovated multiple times. This area of the building was the second clue that there was more than meets the eye.

An Archaeological Wonder

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More accurately, the information dredged up from Jefferson’s grandson was a wonder to archaeologists. The discovered document described a room in the southern wing of the building. This room didn’t register in their minds until they remember the multiple renovations that had gone on because of a bathroom. Soon, things started to come together.

Digging for Historical Gold

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At first, the historians involved were hesitant to begin digging. After all, they had been led astray by Jefferson’s grandson before. He was known to be unreliable, but this time was different. There had been rumors circling around Jefferson’s conduct for ages, so this was something worth pursuing.

Descendants of the Monticello Slaves

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Before we move on to the hidden room in question, we feel the need to step back. Here we see descendants of the original enslaved families that worked at the Monticello Plantation. This photograph was taken in 2016, right above the Kitchen Yard.

The Hidden Room

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The historians at the Monticello Plantation were quick to get to work and they were quick to get results. Once they knocked down the men’s bathroom, the workers found a small room that had been otherwise hidden. For years, this room had been completely off of the radar. Now they were staring reality in its face.

The Sally Hemings Home

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The secret room measured at 15 x 13 feet. Inside of the room was a brick oven. There were no windows. In fact, there were really no signs of any comfortable accouterments. This room, history goes on to show, belonged to Sally Hemings. Now, why is that so important? Why is this secret bad enough to mire Thomas Jefferson in controversy?

The Outrageous Claim

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If we turn back the clock, we’ll find this newspaper article that was penned by James T. Callender. In this article, Callender attacks Jefferson by claiming that he had been having a romantic relationship with a slave girl named Sally. This is obviously horrific as the implication here is downright scary. Could a slave girl turn down the advances of her rich and powerful slave keeper? What would happen to her young son, Tom, if she refused Jefferson?

The Plot Thickens

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Callender wasn’t content to just lob rumors at Jefferson. Callender continued to try and incite a reaction from Jefferson by claiming that Jefferson had fathered children with Sally. Callender would go on to claim that Jefferson did not claim the children so as to keep his illicit affair hidden.

A Political Attack Dog

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While we doubt that James T. Callender was acting out of moral outrage, he was nonetheless right on the money in some respects. Callender had been attempting to slander Thomas Jefferson but, in doing so, he had made history. Callender’s words ended up being the backbone of legitimacy that this secret room needed.

John Adams References the Affair

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Callender alone would not have been enough to keep the story afloat. Here we see a letter penned by John Adams, the second President of the United States. This letter was dated eight years prior to Callender’s work. In this letter, Adams alludes to a relationship between Jefferson and a slave girl.

Time to Meet Sally

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We’ve danced around introducing Sally Heming, so let’s go all in. Sally Hemings was 16 years old when she moved to the plantation. She was the half-sister of Sally Heming, Jefferson’s late wife. Despite having a prominent white relative, Hemings was born into slavery due to her being half African American. She would spend her life tending to the house and doing manual labor on the grounds.

Known for her Beauty

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Despite her low station in life, Sally Hemings was well-known for her beauty. Despite being an ostensibly positive trait, it is easy to see how being an attractive slave could become a hindrance. Hemings was described as ‘handsome’ and ‘mighty near white’ by Jefferson’s blacksmith, Isaac Granger. Hemings was particularly known for her flowing hair that reached her waist.

A Trip to France

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Let’s go back in time even further in order to really flesh out this story. The year was 1784. Jefferson’s wife had recently died and he had been appointed to work as the U.S. minister to France. Jefferson would take Hemings on his trip to France. France did not condone slavery and thus Sally would have been protected by France had she chosen to stay. Some would argue that Sally’s return to the U.S. is proof that she was a willing participant in the relationship.

A Tangled Relationship

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It’s truly hard to say how willing Sally was in her relationship with Jefferson. She was 16-years-old when Jefferson began courting her in the wake of Martha’s death. Jefferson was in his 40s at the time. Sally would go on to bear four more children in her life and historians have begun to seriously contemplate whether or not they were the children of Thomas Jefferson.

No Real Escape

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While it is a romantic notion to believe that Sally simply chose to be in love with Thomas Jefferson, the truth is much muddier. At 16-years-old and in a foreign country, Sally was at a disadvantage. Add on to the fact that she was already pregnant at 16-years-old and was bereft of resources. What more could she do but stay with her slave master?

The Plot Thickens

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Perhaps most compelling of all was the fact that Jefferson was notorious for not freeing his slaves. Of the 500 slaves that Jefferson owned, he only ever freed a handful of them. The slaves that Jefferson chose to free were Sally and her children. Jefferson also gave money to Sally and her children as they left the estate. What could bring Jefferson to do such a thing?

A Verbal Agreement

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While Thomas Jefferson was vociferously averse to slavery as an institution, he still dabbled in and profited from slavery.  Despite having been freed, Sally chose to stay at the Monticello Plantation with Jefferson until his death in 1826. Her children left when they could.

The Great Controversy

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Before we get back to the secret room, we have to dig deeper into the controversy surrounding Sally and Jefferson. Despite not being listed as the father to her children, a fact which would have doomed his political aspirations, there are some interesting traits shared among the children and Jefferson.

Meet Eston Hemings

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Eston Hemings was one of the first children freed by Thomas Jefferson. His skin tone was fair and he was able to pass as white among the rest of society. Hemings would get married and have three kids of his own. This picture of Eston bears a striking resemblance to just about any portrait of a young Jefferson.

Rumors Spread Quickly

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When Eston Hemings moved to Ohio, rumors arrived soon after. Hemings was immediately attached to Thomas Jefferson and the local papers began to seriously consider his prior relations.  One reporter took the mission to find out the truth of Jefferson’s patronage and he would end up confronting Eston directly.

Not A Refusal

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When Eston was approached by the local reporter in regards to his lineage, he had every reason and opportunity to lie. Eston did not lie. Instead, he said, “My mother, whose name I bear, belonged to Mr. Jefferson. She never married.” That was it. That was all that Eston was willing to say on the topic. It was enough, however, as he would prove to be the missing link.

DNA Evidence Makes Stunning Revelation

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In order to put the mystery to rest, scientists turned to one of the wonders of modern scientific advancement: DNA testing. Scientists tracked down descendants of Eston Hemings in order to test their DNA against Thomas Jefferson’s lineage. They would soon find out that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally’s children and possibly all of them.

You ARE the Father

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The results were conclusive and the revelation would go on to shock people throughout the United States. This DNA evidence was proof positive that Thomas Jefferson was far from the paradigm of moral perfection that he had been presented as.

Not Without a Fight

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The Thomas Jefferson Foundation obviously didn’t like this news as it cast Jefferson into a fairly negative light. They created their own research group and came to the conclusion that Sally had children with Randolph Jefferson, not Thomas. This evidence has not held up over the years and many researchers see it as a simple defense for the man’s reputation.

Meet Harriet Hemings

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While the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has their stance, most modern researchers agree that Thomas Jefferson is the father of Sally’s children. Here we see Harriet Hemings who was also renown for her beauty. She was also able to marry into white culture while hiding her heritage.  Madison Hemings would stay at the plantation with his mother.

Constant Exploration

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While we think of history as something we ‘know’, the truth is that history is always changing. Fraser Neiman is the Director of Archaeology at the Monticello Plantation. He is leading the charge toward finding more of the hidden artifacts and relics that dot the property of the plantation.

Understanding History

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While we look at the Founding Fathers of the United States of America as idols to be respected, they were as flawed as anyone else. Thomas Jefferson’s legacy has suffered in the wake of the illicit affair. His actions are made even worse when put against his own words that insisted that all men were “created equal”. However, how far is it to judge Jefferson with modern standards? Was he guilty all the same?

The Shameful Room

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What shocks most historians is the fact that Sally’s secret room was located adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s. It is very likely that she bore her children within these walls, alone and away from the rest of the world. Just imagine being a 16-year-old girl, enslaved, and forced to give birth to the children of your master. It’s a tough pill to swallow.

Pulling Back the Blinds

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For a long time, the Monticello Plantation historical preservation has fought against Jefferson’s shadier history. Now, thanks to the prevalence of research, it seems like the historians at the plantation are finally giving Sally her time in the light.  Still, it IS hard to measure what Jefferson did against the modern conception of the man.

A Dark Spot in History

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Nowadays, the Sally Hemings room has been updated and dressed up to be more befitting her place in history. Here we get to see a room dedicated to how Sally might have lived when she was inside of the mansion. It’s interesting to see her station in life compared to her living quarters. Sally even allegedly told her children that they were Jefferson’s children. How did they feel about this truth?

Dead at 83

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Thomas Jefferson would live a long life before passing away in his home at the age of 83. Jefferson ran into serious debt issues later in life and he would sell off his slaves in order to regain some financial compensation. This, too, ran counter to Jefferson’s public belief in the morality of slavery.

Changing Your View

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The revelation that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with an enslaved teenager is hard to wrap our mind around. For so long, Thomas Jefferson has been a paradigm of morality. Does this new insight into his true actions inspire any change in your perception of him? He’s still one of the most important figures in American history, but it appears that his own life was far more textured than we realized.

Changing History

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While the Thomas Jefferson Foundation was hesitant to embrace the news of Jefferson’s misdeeds, history has slowly developed around these new facts. As a result, kids all over the world are learning about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson at the same time. She has become an intrinsic part of her history.

Truth in Pop Culture

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With more information being released about Sally Hemings and her relationship with Jefferson, new media has begun to embrace the story. Popular TV show Saturday Night Live has already parodied the story, thus bringing the information to the mainstream.

Yet Mysteries Remain

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Despite all that we now know, what we don’t know weighs even heavier. Will we ever truly discover if the Sally – Jefferson relationship was a consensual one? Was Thomas Jefferson secretly some sort of monster? We may never know.

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A Recovered 1930s Interview Tells The Story Of The Surviving Slavery

Brooke Hurbert

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Many avid readers enjoy a good book by Zora Neale Hurston. What they may not know about her is that her talents ran much deeper than writing. Unbeknownst to many, she tracked down a man with an extraordinary story to tell. She found not just any man, but the last one that survived being held captive on a ship filled with slaves being transported from Africa to the U.S. 

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Not only did Hurston find this man, she thoroughly interviewed him as well. Unfortunately, she was not able to put the interview into book form, despite her best efforts. It wasn’t until 2018 that the interview was finally published in the form of a book titled Barracoon: The Story of The Last “Black Cargo.” With the release of Hurston’s book many longtime unanswered questions were suddenly answered. 

Barracoon tells the story of a man born with the name Kossula, which later became Cudjo Lewis.  When he was born he lived in Benin, a country in West Africa. At the age of 19 he was kidnapped by the Dahomian tribe. Against his will he was moved to the coast and sold as a slave, along with approximately another 120 men. He and the other slaves were forced to reside on the Clotilda, a slave ship which would take them from their home country to America.

In 1860 the ship arrived in Alabama with all captured slaves on board.  Despite the declaration in the U.S. that slavery was legal, bringing slaves in from other countries was illegal. The ship arrived in Alabama during overnight hours. They were then confined to an area swamp for a matter of days. For fear of being caught, the kidnappers set the ship on fire. There is a distinct possibility that the remains of the ship were found in early 2018. 

Those that read the book will get a firsthand view of the ordeal through Lewis’s eyes. Throughout the book, Lewis expresses how it felt to be sold into slavery against his will. He talks about how even though his fellow slaves lived together on the ship, they were separated once they reached Alabama. Readers experience the pain of the ordeal right along with him. 

Lewis talks about how he struggled with being placed on a plantation he felt out of place in. Due to language barriers, he and the plantation workers could not effectively communicate. The frustration Lewis experienced during that time is evident throughout the story. He also shares with Hurston that the Civil War had started and he’d had no idea at the time. He later gained knowledge that the point of the war was to free him and his fellow slaves. 

Following Robert E. Lee’s April 1865 surrender, Lewis told Hurston that Union soldiers came to the boat he was working on. They then delivered the news that the slaves had finally be freed . Not content to return to his prior life, Lewis and his fellow freed slaves teamed up to purchase land in Alabama. Located near Mobile, the men transformed the land they christened Africatown. 

Though Hurston faced controversy for her handling of the book’s subject matter, she kept the book intact. Much of the book took Lewis’s exact words and put them on paper. At the time she was trying to get it published, this prevented her from being able to do so. As her readers know, Hurston was known for her controversial views on anthropology and not shying away from dialogue considered vernacular. Much of that is evident in this book. 

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When Trucking Leads to Change

Anjali DeSimone

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The United States decision to resupply the Israeli military marked the beginning of a national crisis. In response to this decision, Arab members of the OPEC banned exports of petroleum to the United States and other supporting countries of Israel. Subsequently, oil prices quadrupled, and the economy begin to suffer. One of the people affected by this crisis was JW Edwards, A meat truck driver from Overland Park, Kansas. In an attempt to financially survive the crisis, Edwards and other truck drivers made up code names to let each other know where to find diesel fuel; however, this this did not last very long, as many gas stations did not supply enough diesel to meet trucker demand.   No gas meant no deliveries, and no deliveries meant no money. Not only was there no gas, but there had been talk of changing the maximum speed limit to fifty-five miles per hour. Edwards knew that if this continued for too long, he would be forced out of business. “I had to take things into my own hands.” he said. “My family was depending on me.” 

On the night of December 3rd, while passing through Blakeslee, Pennsylvania Edwards ran out of gas in the middle of the interstate. He had had enough. He picked up his CB radio and invited other nearby truckers to come block the interstate in protest.

When John Robinson, a local trucker from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania heard Edwards on the radio, he headed that way to show his support. Robinson knew and understood Edwards’ frustration all to well as he and his family were also feeling the affects of the oil crisis. He had been in the trucking business for thirty years, hauling lumber from state to state. Not only was this his families only source of income, but at the time, his wife had recently given birth to their fourth child. “Some nights he would come home and not say nothing,” remembers Mrs. Robinson. “I knew that he was worried, but I trusted that he would figure it out.”

The protest stretched nearly twelve miles, causing a standstill for nearly one thousand vehicles. It wasn’t long before truckers in other states followed the lead. The protest caught national attention, and although some state leaders promised changed, gas prices continued to rise. Since the protest had begun, food shortages were on the rise and the economy was a mess due to the over 100,00 people who were now unemployed.

It wasn’t until a group of six truckers from the Independent Driving Association decided to come together to speak with government officials that things begin to get better. Government officials agreed to ensure that the truck stops had enough diesel fuel to meet the demands of the truckers. They also worked together to appeal the decision to decrease the maximum speed limit.

In March of 1974, approximately six months after it had all started the embargo ended.  Negotiations between Israel and Syria were finalized. The affects of the crisis however, including the high fuel prices, lasted  throughout the 1970s.  

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The Start of the U.S. Oil Industry: A Gusher on This Day in 1901

Anjali DeSimone

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More than 100 years ago on this very day, the United States’s Oil Industry was born. In 1901, a derrick was drilling just outside of Beaumont, Texas on Spindletop Hill. During this process, a large amount of crude oil began gushing out of the ground, billowing into the air. It coated the landscape in all directions for hundreds of feet. With this celebratory burst, the oil industry was born. This oil geyser was buried about 1,000 feet underground and began putting out 100,000 barrels per day. It took more than a week for the workers to regain control of the situation. From this oil, the refineries got their start. Petroleum, which had been used as a lubricant in the past, started to be used for gas. This gasoline would go on to power numerous modes of transportation including trains, ships, cars, and planes.

What is Crude Oil?

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From this geyser, often termed “black gold,” crude oil would become the first industry in the world to be valued at more than one trillion dollars. This valuable liquid is a mixture of a variety of hydrocarbon molecules and compounds. It is trapped deep underneath the surface of the earth in rocks. This liquid forms over the course of millions of years. During this time, small plants and animals died and settled on the bottom of various waterways. As this material was buried and placed under a large amount of pressure, it began to heat up. Then, it melted into a liquid that became the petroleum we know as crude oil today.

The Rise of the Crude Oil Industry

The search for crude oil began decades prior to this first geyser. During the 1890s, a geologist and businessman from Texas named Patillo Higgins believed that there was oil underneath the hill outside of Beaumont. He gathered up several business partners and founded a business that set out drilling throughout the area looking for this black gold. He named his company the Gladys City Oil, Gas, & Manufacturing Company. Although his company had made a variety of unsuccessful drilling attempts, he was persistent. Just before 1900, Higgins leased a small amount of land on Spindletop to an engineer in the mining industry named Anthony Lucas. On January 10, 1901, Lucas hit his mark and the liquid billowed into the air.  Although at this point Higgins had surrendered his stake in the business, he had made his mark on history.

Rapid Growth for the Crude Oil Industry

Thanks to the discovery, Beaumont exploded. It became known as a boomtown thanks to the discovery of crude oil and the business that came with it. During the three months after the discovery by Lucas and Higgins, the population of the small town would triple. There were all sorts of people flooding the town ranging from merchants, oil workers, engineers, investors, and even con men. The con and scam problems became so bad that many people nicknamed the hill Swindletop. By 1902, there were close to 300 wells that were active on that fateful hill that were being run by more than 500 companies specializing in oil. Many of these companies are still active today including Exxon (called Humble), Texaco (called the Texas Company), and Mobil (called the Magnolia Petroleum Company). Spindletop would go on to experience a handful of booms as more and more oil was discovered. A second discovery took place in the 1920s and then a sulfur discovery gave rise to another boom in the 1950s. By this time, only a few scattered oil wells are still active in the Spindletop area.

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