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Who Was Sally Hemings?

Who Was Sally Hemings?


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A look at the life of Sally Hemings, slave and concubine to Thomas Jefferson, who had a 37-year relationship with the U.S. founding father and bore several of his children.


Sally Hemings

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Sally Hemings, (born 1773, Charles City county, Virginia [U.S.]—died 1835, Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S.), American slave who was owned by U.S. Pres. Thomas Jefferson and is widely believed to have had a relationship with him that resulted in several children.

Hemings, known as Sally but who was likely named Sarah, was born into slavery to a white father, John Wayles, and his mulatto slave, Elizabeth Hemings. According to oral history passed down through the Hemings family, Elizabeth was the daughter of a white sea captain named Hemings and an African slave owned by Wayles. Sally was thus three-fourths white. When Wayles died in 1773, Elizabeth and her children were inherited by Martha Jefferson, who was Wayles’s daughter by Martha Eppes Wayles and the wife of Thomas Jefferson. The Hemings family was sent to Monticello, Jefferson’s farm and estate in Virginia, where they were given positions as house slaves.

Two years after Martha’s death in 1782, Jefferson went to France to serve as a diplomat. In 1787 he sent for his youngest daughter, Maria, who was escorted by Hemings, then 14 years old. It was during that time that an intimate relationship between Hemings and Jefferson is thought to have begun. In 1789 Jefferson and Hemings returned to the United States. She resumed her work at Monticello, and Jefferson’s records noted that, over the next two decades, she gave birth to six children. Harriet was born in 1795 but lived only two years. Hemings gave birth to a son, Beverly, in 1798 and another daughter named Harriet, in 1801. An unnamed daughter was born in 1799 but died in infancy. Hemings later had two sons, Madison and Eston, who were born in 1805 and 1808, respectively. Some have claimed that Hemings’s first child was Thomas C. Woodson, born in 1790. However, there is no evidence that Hemings had a child that year—notably, Jefferson never noted the birth—and later DNA tests revealed that he was not the father.

In Jefferson’s records from 1822, Harriet and Beverly were listed as runaways, but they actually were allowed to leave freely. Their light-coloured skin helped them blend into the white world of Washington, D.C. Madison and Eston were freed in 1826 at the time of Jefferson’s death. Hemings was not mentioned in Jefferson’s will. In 1827 she was listed as a slave on the official slave inventory of the Jefferson estate and valued at $50. It later appears that she received unofficial freedom from Jefferson’s daughter Martha, and Hemings lived the rest of her life with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The first public mention of Hemings came in 1802, when The Recorder newspaper published an article by James Callender, an adversary of Jefferson, who claimed a relationship between her and Jefferson. Jefferson never responded to the allegations, which became the source of much debate and speculation. Although some of his white descendants later denied the claims—Peter Carr, a nephew of Jefferson, was often cited as the father of Hemings’s children—Hemings’s descendants argued, on the basis of oral history and an 1873 memoir by Madison Hemings, that Jefferson was the father. With conflicting and inconclusive evidence, the majority of scholars found the allegations unlikely. In 1998, however, DNA samples were gathered from living descendants of Jefferson and Hemings, and the subsequent tests revealed that Jefferson was almost certainly the father of some of Hemings’s children Carr was ruled out. Although the scholarly consensus became that Jefferson and Hemings were sexual partners, some, citing the lack of scientific certainty, continued to contest Jefferson’s paternity. (See “Tom and Sally”: the Jefferson-Hemings paternity debate.)

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.


Important Women of History

Virginia:
Born 1773,
Died 1835.
One told story among many untold.

The story starts a couple generations back. There was this African woman, Susannah Eppes, she was called, who ended up on the ship of an English captain named John Hemings. He had sex with her. She got pregnant. Shortly thereafter, she found herself living in Virginia, slave to landholder Francis Eppes IV, where she had her baby.

The baby was a girl: Elizabeth Hemings, a half-white, first-generation African immigrant.

Mother and daughter worked for old Mr. Eppes until his own daughter, Miss Martha, was to be married. At that point, Martha Eppes received Elizabeth Hemings for her personal slave, part of the bridal package.

So, Hemings moved house and became a domestic servant to the bride and her new husband, John Wayles, a lawyer and slave trader. She also became a mother: got together with a man likewise enslaved, and had four children with him.

The thing is, John Wayles’s wives just kept dying. First Martha Eppes, then two more. After the third, he decided to take Elizabeth Hemings as his concubine. Now at this point, Hemings was already a mother of four she already had a longterm relationship going with another man. Nevertheless Wayles fathered another six children by her. These Hemings children were not only his by blood (he was their father) they were also his legal property (he was their slaveowner). The youngest was Sally Hemings.

John also had some children who weren’t slaves, of course. Enter Martha Wayles, his daughter: she’s the one who later married Thomas Jefferson.

Got it? Now, pause for a moment. Already, the family ties between the Hemings women and, shall we say, the Marthas are bizarrely intertwined. Martha’s grandfather owned Sally’s grandmother. Martha’s mother owned Sally’s mother. Martha and Sally are sisters.

Martha is white – a future First Lady.

Sally is three-quarters white – a second-generation African immigrant.

Here’s where it gets weird. When John Wayles died, Martha and Thomas Jefferson inherited a lot. A lot of land, a lot of debt, also a lot of slaves. Among these were the Hemings children: Sally and her brothers and sisters. Which means, when John Wayles died, Martha inherited her siblings. (Jefferson, his in-laws.)

These Hemings children apparently never did any field work while enslaved to the Jeffersons, for what that’s worth. But the pattern continued: after Martha died and Thomas got over his devastation, he began having sex with Sally Hemings.

That started while he was abroad, working as the American envoy to France. His two youngest daughters had been staying with friends States-side, but when little Lucy died of whooping cough, Thomas called nine-year-old Polly to join him overseas. He arranged for an older woman to accompany her and look after her, but when they arrived, the nurse turned out to be Sally.

Abigail Adams, who received them in London, wasn’t too thrilled. Sally was only 15 or so, and according to Abigail, she wasn’t much of a nurse. But Sally stayed on, joining Jefferson in Paris that summer, where he found other reasons to value her.

Lest it go unsaid, there are some allegations that this whole “consort” business is the stuff of legend – that Thomas Jefferson, who spoke so rousingly about the human dignity of enslaved blacks, would never have slept with his late wife’s enslaved half-sister.

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

The DNA of Sally’s children disagrees. Anyway, what’s so surprising? Jefferson was a powerful man who lived at a time when powerful men enslaved people of color and often had sex with them. Despite his apparent values, it was a time of cognitive dissonance. So is our own time. So is every time.

But let’s not deviate. Hemings learned a little French in Paris. More importantly, she was considered legally free as long as she stayed, because slavery was illegal there. She could have left. However, Jefferson got her pregnant and promised to free her children if she came home, so she did that instead.

The baby died, but Hemings had six other children afterward, whose names Jefferson wrote down in his slave book – with just one peculiarity. Unlike all the other slave births he recorded, he did not write down who their father was.

Jefferson never freed Sally Hemings nor did he free all her children, as he’d promised. In his lifetime, Jefferson freed only two slaves. In his will, he freed five more – all Hemings men a few, his own children. The only female slave who went free under his watch was Sally’s runaway daughter, whom Thomas chose not to pursue.

After Thomas died, Sally’s niece Martha Jefferson (the third Martha in the line) chose to keep her aunt out of the auction afterward she freed Sally informally, though it never happened in print. For nine years following, Hemings lived in Virginia with her two youngest sons – and in 1833, they were all written up in the census as free whites.

SIGNIFICANCE

According to one line of thought, Sally Hemings is significant only because Thomas Jefferson is significant. Hemings didn’t write the Declaration of Independence, after all – rather, she was impelled to sleep with its author. What’s really important is the way Jefferson’s affair with her changes what we think about him.

In other words, she’s significant not for who she was or what she did, but for what was done to her.

This is the significance that James Thomson Callendar vocalized in 1802, suggesting in the Richmond Recorder that Hemings’s name sullies Jefferson’s that somehow she sullies American history by having been made a part of it.

True, the only reason we know about Hemings is that she happened to get tangled up in the affairs of a patriotic archetype. Yet there were countless other women who lived the same story, whose names we don’t know, and it’s important to remember that history contains them too: the invisible, unreported many. These are the stories that Hemings’s life helps illuminate.

Sally Hemings was not unique. She lived a matrilineal pattern already several generations deep by the time it got to her: her grandmother Susannah Eppes, impelled by John Hemings… her mother Elizabeth Hemings, impelled by John Wayles… herself, impelled by Thomas Jefferson.

The word “impelled” is consciously chosen. We don’t know what these women thought of their sexual partners, but we know their partners had complete control over their circumstances. Where a “no” holds no weight, a “yes” cannot exist. The word “consent” does not describe it.

There’s another reason Hemings’s story is significant: for the questions it raises. Where does sexual consent exist today where does it not? How much weight do we give this? In what ways are the patterns from only 200 years ago still rippling? In what ways do we continue to determine people’s rights and privileges according to race, gender and other identifiers?

Also, how does a women’s history perspective on Hemings’s story differ from a more mainstream telling? For that last question, dig into this article.


Sally Hemings and Her Place in American History

As a third grader, Annette Gordon-Reed remembers reading her first biography of Thomas Jefferson. Her fascination with this former president continued through her adolescence and adulthood, inspiring her to eventually become a distinguished historian and writer. However, it wasn&rsquot Jefferson himself who most ignited her imagination but his longtime slave, Sally Hemings (1773-1835).

Throughout her celebrated career, Professor Gordon-Reed &ndash the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law School and a Professor of History at Harvard University &ndash has devoted much of her transformative scholarship to telling Ms. Hemings&rsquo remarkable story, focusing not only on her decades-long relationship with Jefferson but on who she was as a complex woman shaped by race, gender, status and circumstance.

On January 26, the Chapin community had the distinct privilege of spending a virtual evening with this noted scholar. As the 2021 Gilder Lehrman Institute Lecturer, she centered her captivating talk around her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, &ldquoThe Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family&rdquo (2008), a follow up to her previous work, &ldquoThomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings&rdquo (1997).

Inaugurated in 2006, Chapin&rsquos annual lecture is the result of the School&rsquos wonderful partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which promotes the understanding of U.S. history through educational programs. Students in Classes 7 and 11 logged into the virtual webinar, along with current and past parents, professional community members, alums, grandparents and friends.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for History, Professor Gordon-Reed has received a multitude of honors including a National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur &ldquogenius&rdquo grant. The author of numerous volumes, she was a lawyer before pivoting to a career in writing and academia.

&ldquoThis book means so much to me,&rdquo exclaimed Professor Gordon-Reed after Head of School Suzanne Fogarty&rsquos warm welcome and an introduction from James Basker, the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

&ldquoI was dissatisfied with the dismissal of the Hemings family in connection to Jefferson, so I asked myself, &lsquoWhat can I do?&rsquo&rdquo

The &ldquodismissal&rdquo Professor Gordon-Reed was referring to was the systematic removal of Sally Hemings and her family from historical records. For 150 years, historians denied that Jefferson had had an intimate relationship with his slave and fathered her six children, despite compelling evidence supporting this claim. Although most modern historians believe the relationship indeed existed, it wasn&rsquot until 1998 that DNA testing proved Jefferson&rsquos paternity.

Through her groundbreaking and painstaking research, Professor Gordon-Reed sheds new light on this long-simmering historical debate, helping to restore the Hemingses rightful place in the American narrative. By examining Jefferson&rsquos copious archives &ndash he was &ldquoan inveterate record keeper&rdquo &ndash the speaker described how she was able to piece together a timeline that traced the Hemings family from the 1700s in Virginia to the years following Thomas Jefferson&rsquos death in 1826.

Professor Gordon-Reed&rsquos sweeping, 800-page book, which she characterized as &ldquoa generational saga of an enslaved family,&rdquo also benefited from the fact that the Hemingses lived at Monticello, Jefferson&rsquos Virginia plantation, for more than half a century. &ldquoI could follow their lives unlike [slave] families separated by sale,&rdquo she said. She also noted that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson&rsquos deceased wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, which may have contributed to Jefferson&rsquos preferential treatment of her.

Along with Sally Hemings, the book includes significant sections about her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, her siblings, and four of her children with Jefferson who lived (two died in infancy): sons Beverly, Madison, and Eston, and daughter Harriet. &ldquoI wanted to go beyond Sally Hemings,&rdquo she said, adding that recollections from Madison Hemings played an important role in her research.

At one point, Professor Gordon-Reed shared a revealing story about young Sally Hemings and the time she and her brother, James, spent in Paris, where Jefferson was serving on a diplomatic mission. Ms. Hemings accompanied Jefferson&rsquos daughter on the journey in 1787 and in time became Jefferson&rsquos &ldquoconcubine,&rdquo the professor explained.

Learning she was pregnant, Ms. Hemings wanted to remain in Paris, where she knew slavery was illegal by French law. However, Jefferson made her an offer of sorts. If she returned to Virginia, he promised to free her child, and any future children, once they reached adulthood.

&ldquoSally decides to come back with Jefferson,&rdquo said Professor Gordon-Reed. &ldquoWhy did she do that? people ask me. Think about it. It would have been very difficult to leave her family. This is the dilemma of all enslaved people. Do you take the freedom and leave your family behind?&rdquo

In the end, Jefferson kept his promise. As the professor reiterated, Sally Hemings and her family were elevated above other enslaved people, likely because of their biological connection to his late wife. Thus, the Hemings children held domestic jobs and never had to work as servants. In addition, &ldquothey got a head start on emancipation.&rdquo

&ldquoSome saw it as a story of survival,&rdquo Professor Gordon-Reed pointed out, reflecting on the complicated choices Ms. Hemings faced. &ldquoPeople like Sally used whatever agency they had to make a better life for themselves and their families.&rdquo

For the last few minutes of her riveting lecture, Professor Gordon-Reed graciously responded to a number of previously submitted questions, one of which touched on the challenges of her research process.

&ldquoIt&rsquos tough when you&rsquore dealing with little snippets of information. It&rsquos like a puzzle. You have to think creatively and broadly and prepare for dry holes that lead nowhere,&rdquo she said, adding &ldquoYou have to believe in your project and savor every victory. And you have to love it!&rdquo

In his closing remarks, Dr. Basker praised Professor Gordon-Reed for her compassionate and thought-provoking talk. &ldquoWhat you&rsquove done for these students is really open up a world of different people and different circumstances and help us to understand them as human beings,&rdquo he said.

&ldquoThe other thing you&rsquove done is you&rsquove modeled a possibility. I&rsquom hoping there are Chapin students who got a chance to hear you tonight who can see in you something they might aspire to and might become.&rdquo


Did Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson Love Each Other?

In the years since the publication of my book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, I have traveled throughout the United States and overseas talking about them—and life and slavery at Monticello. Writers are, in the main, solitary creatures. Or, at least, the process of writing forces us into solitude for long stretches of time I find it refreshing and gratifying to meet people who have read one’s work (or plan to) and have questions, observations, and opinions about it. In all the venues I have visited, from Houston to Stockholm, one question always arises: Did they love each other?

To call this a loaded question does not begin to do justice to the matter, given America’s tortured racial history and its haunting legacy. To be on the receiving end of that question is to be thrown into a large minefield. It is even worse for someone who is considered an expert on Hemings and Jefferson. You wrote the book about them, didn’t you?

Part of a historian’s job is to try to navigate the gap stretching between those who lived in the past and those who live today, especially pointing out the important differences. At the same time, it remains equally important to recognize and give due consideration to those points of commonality that the past the present share. While there’s truth in the old saying that the past is a foreign country, anyone visiting a foreign land also encounters many familiar sights, rituals, and behaviors, because the basic realities of the human condition remain the same.

See the essay in the June 1972 American Heritage, "The Great Jefferson Taboo" by Fawn Brody, which reignited the controversy over Jefferson and Hemings

What does this mean for Sally and Thomas, the enslaved woman and the man who owned her? Their legal relationship to one another—and the world they shared—is strange to us today. Certainly people suffer oppression today: many work for little or no pay, while countless women and children are forced into prostitution. Yet this cannot match the horrific nature of America’s racially-based chattel slavery, in which a person’s children were enslaved in perpetuity unless an owner decided to give up his or her ownership of that person. What love could exist between a man and a woman enmeshed in—and negotiation the rules of—that world? And what difference does it make if they “loved” each other? Why are members of my audience so intent on knowing that?

The question about Hemings and Jefferson, of course, does not arise from a vacuum. We modern people have a history, so to speak, with love, especially of the romantic kind. Not other human emotion excites such passionate interest and longing or gives rise to such high expectations at all levels of society. Songs tell us that “love” is “the answer” to almost everything that ails us: war, famine, disease, and racial prejudice. Love is all we need.

Indeed, I suspect that love’s supposed capacity to heal lies at the heart of people’s interest in Hemings and Jefferson. And he is the prime focus of the inquiry. My impression from talking with people and reading the letters they writing to me, not to mention the many operas, plays, screenplays, and proposals for novels they send, is that Jefferson’s love for Hemings could somehow redeem and heal him. Thomas Jefferson—in need of redemption?

As much as we admire the author of the Declaration of Independence and the two-term U.S. president, a man who doubled the size of the nation, sent Lewis and Clark west, founded the University of Virginia, championed religious freedom, and acted as an all-around renaissance man, Jefferson the slaveholder poses a great challenge. He publicly aired his suspicions that the mental capacity of blacks was inferior to whites’, not exactly as a popular believe in a society that claims (note the operative word “claims”) to find such notions completely abhorrent. For some, the knowledge that Jefferson had loved the enslaved African American woman with whom he had seven children would rescue him from the depravity of having been a slave owner who made disparaging comments about blacks—perhaps not totally exonerating him, but in some small but important way moderating the disturbing facts. That much-longed for human connection would have worked its magic.

Love, which remains extremely difficult to capture and define today or in the past, poses a major hurdle in sorting out the nature of their relationship. Speaking of love in the context of a master-slave relationship is even more difficult, given the moral and political implications. After all, the idea of “love” was used during the antebellum period and afterward as a defense of slavery. Apologists for the peculiar institution claimed that a genuine “love” existed between the races during slavery, putting the lie to northern abolitionists’ claim that the institution was evil and exploitative. Southern slaveholders often pointed to their affection for their individual “mammies” and the supposedly deep ties they formed with their enslaved playmates (of the same sex, of course) on the plantation. Significantly, they never spoke about the possibility of love and regular heterosexual relationships between males and females of mixed races. That type of love was taboo then, and it has remained discomfiting to many Americans even into the 21st century.

Then there’s the question of consent and rape. While Martha Jefferson had given her perpetual consent to sexual relations with her husband by the act of marrying him—there was no such thing as marital rape—Jefferson owned his wife’s half sister, Sally, in a completely different way. Being a man’s wife was not the same thing as being a man’s slave, even if Sally and Thomas’s relationship had begun under unusual circumstances. They became involved while Jefferson was serving as the American minister to France. Under French law, Hemings would have had a clear route to freedom had she chosen it. Instead, she agreed to return to America with him, placing herself entirely under his power. At any time, Jefferson had the right to sell her and their children if he wanted to.

White males, not just slave owners—exercised inordinate power over black women during slavery. Rape and the threat of it blighted the lives of countless enslaved women. At the same time, some black women and white men did form bonds quite different in character than from those resulting from sexual coercion. No social system can ever stamp out all the constitutive aspects of the human character. Heterosexual men and women thrown together in intimate circumstances will become attracted to one another.

Consider how Hemings and Jefferson lived at the Hôtel de Langeac in Paris between 1787 and 1789. What parents would send their pretty teenaged daughter to live in a house with a lonely, middle-aged widower whose daughters spent all week away at boarding school—and place him in charge of her well-being? Jefferson would never have allowed his daughters Patsy and Polly to live under such a situation unless a female chaperone was present. The question of appropriateness never came up with Sally Hemings, because she was a slave. Her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, had no say in the matter, just another of the countless reasons why slavery was an inhumane institution.

Suggesting that their possible feelings for one another made a difference is a romantic notion

So what do I say to people about Hemings, Jefferson, and love? I am ever mindful of the dangers of romanticizing the pair. Apologists for slavery have not all gone away, and they will fasten onto any story that appears to “soften” the harsh contours of that institution and mitigate southern slaveholder guilt. I believe, however, that saying that they may have loved each other is not romantic. Suggesting that their possible feelings for one another made a difference is a romantic notion. I am not one who believes that “love” is the answer to everything. Strong emotions that two individuals may have had cannot mitigate the problem of slavery or Jefferson’s specific role as a slave owner.

Other factors make it difficult to determine the nature of their relationship. Neither spoke publicly about it, leaving us only to draw inferences. We do know that Jefferson bargained intensely with Hemings to return to America, promising her a good life at Monticello and freedom for her children when they became adults. Was that merely in-the-moment lust? While lust can last minutes, months, or even a few years, it cannot typically span the decades during which they were involved. It simply takes more than lust to sustain an interest in another person over such an extended time period.

In addition, Jefferson had access to many other women at Monticello who could have satisfied his carnal interests. Yet, so far as the record shows, he remained fixated on Sally Hemings, arranging her life at Monticello so that she interacted with him on a daily basis for almost four decades. Despite the brutal public attention focused on the pair after James Callender exposed their relationship in 1802, Jefferson continued to have children with Hemings. Their children—James Madison, Thomas Eston, William Beverly, and Harriet—were named for people important to him. His white daughter was said to have wanted Jefferson to send Hemings and their children away so as to spare him further embarrassment. He declined.

Judging Hemings’s feelings about Jefferson proves more difficult, because she exercised no legal power over him. While she did abandon her plan to stay in France and then came home to live and have children with him, Hemings may well have had second thoughts about leaving her large and intensely connected family back home. Several of their great-grandchildren explain that Hemings returned to America because Jefferson “loved her dearly,” as if that meant something to her. Upon their return, Hemings’s relatives, both enslaved and free, behaved as if Jefferson was an in-law of sorts. After he died in 1826, Hemings left Monticello with several of Jefferson’s personal items, including pairs of his glasses, an inkwell, and shoe buckles, which she gave to her children as mementos.

While marriage is generally taken as a proof of love between a given man and woman, the quality of the relationship between couples who are not married, or cannot marry because of legal restrictions, may be better than that of men and women whose unions are recognized by law.

The most that can be said is that Hemings and Jefferson lived together over many years and had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood. Jefferson kept his promises to Hemings, and their offspring got a four-decade head start on emancipation, making the most of it by leading prosperous and stable lives. That, I think, is about as much as one can expect from love in the context of life during American slavery.


Read the Full Transcript

Judy Woodruff:

A new chapter has recently been added to the story of one of America's most historic leaders.

Jeffrey Brown visits Thomas Jefferson's home and explains how a visit through the past now brings with it an updated understanding.

It's the latest in our Race Matters series.

Jeffrey Brown:

Sally Hemings, no portrait exists, so we don't know what she looked like.

But now this silhouette and a new exhibition here at Monticello bring a largely hidden story into the open and make a definitive public statement about her decades-long relationship with Thomas Jefferson, the man who owned her and this plantation.

Niya Bates is Monticello's public historian of slavery and African-American life.

We, as Americans, don't address some of the more complex issues of slavery, of sex, of power, of ownership. And that is what is really interesting about Sally Hemings and her story

We want people to see now that Sally Hemings is a real person and that she had a real legacy.

Jeffrey Brown:

Monticello, built between 1768 and 1808 in Charlottesville, Virginia, was home to Jefferson, third president of the United States, writer of the Declaration of Independence, enlightenment thinker, and slave owner of more than 600 people.

Visitors have long come here to see and admire his mansion and its many wonders. The first tour to focus on the enslaved people here only began in 1993.

But over the last several decades, Monticello has slowly expanded the story beyond Jefferson, through research and archaeological work, to include the vast majority of those who lived and worked here.

At a site about a half-mile from the main house, students in a summer program dug trenches, sifted dirt, and found ceramics, nails, and other artifacts of slave life.

Fraser Neiman is Monticello's Director of archaeology.

Fraser Neiman:

It's kind of the undeniable physical remains of the people who were the vast majority of residents here.

They didn't leave behind the tens of thousands of letters that Jefferson did, but they did leave behind thousands of pieces of trash and artifacts that we can begin to learn a little bit more about.

Jeffrey Brown:

The restoration of Mulberry Row beginning in 2011 opened a window onto the workplaces and houses of enslaved artisans and domestic workers.

Leslie Greene Bowman:

I think Monticello is a microcosm of the American story, right? How willing have the American people been to acknowledge slavery as their history and not someone else's history?

Jeffrey Brown:

Leslie Greene Bowman is president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. In 2000, Monticello published a report on DNA and other evidence of Jefferson's paternity of Hemings' six children, four of whom survived to adulthood.

That and work by leading scholars helped bring public acceptance. Some doubters remain, but experts and Monticello itself now consider this a settled matter.

Leslie Greene Bowman:

Monticello says that he's the father of her children.

Jeffrey Brown:

Leslie Greene Bowman:

Jeffrey Brown:

This summer the foundation opened six new exhibits, including the plantation's first kitchen.

The archaeology uncovered a stew stove of the kind Jefferson found and admired in Paris, where he served as U.S. ambassador to France in the 1780s. Sally's brother, James Hemings, was trained in French cooking in Paris and used the stove here at Monticello.

But the main new addition in what until now was a public restroom for visitors is a display on the life of Sally Hemings in one of the two rooms researchers now believe she lived in.

Part of her story is told in the words of her son Madison who gave an oral history of life at Monticello in 1873. Sally Hemings was just 13 or 14 years old when she went to Paris as a maidservant, and the relationship with Jefferson, then 43, began.

When Jefferson returned home, she could have stayed in Paris as a free woman, but negotiated terms for returning to Monticello, that her future children would be freed at age 21.

What we have been trying to do here is to give our visitors everything that we know. We have given the basic biography, her birthday, her death day, the days that she was in Paris, what she was doing, the type of work, where she lived.

But we have also been able to have some of those more complex conversations, again, about the nature of the relationship. Was it consensual? Was it love? We don't actually know the answer to the question.

Jeffrey Brown:

Outside the room, a plaque asks, without answering, "Was it rape?"

Oh, it absolutely had to be asked. There's no way that we could talk about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson and not talk about the power dynamic between the two of them. He did own her. And it wouldn't be acceptable for us to tell this story and not address that power imbalance.

Jeffrey Brown:

An oral history project called Getting Word has been another key part of the new effort here, bringing in descendants of the Hemings and other enslaved families.

Seventy-year-old Diana Redman is a direct descendent of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.

Andrew Davenport, 28, is the great-great-great-great grandson of Sally's brother Peter.

Diana Redman:

When I look around Monticello, I see the labors of the enslaved community and what they were able to do. Jefferson might have had the vision, but the enslaved community operated, acted upon that vision and built this edifice.

We had been part of everything that is Monticello. Knowing that I had enslaved relatives who were here who were involved in the carpentry, who were involved in the cooking and the gardening and the nailery, this is where my ancestors lived and labored. So, that gave a &mdash it made it feel different for me.

Jeffrey Brown:

Can you describe the difference? What did you feel?

Diana Redman:

I won't say it was a sense of ownership. It was a sense of being.

Jeffrey Brown:

Diana Redman:

Yes, being where my ancestors had been before me gave me that sense of, OK, we're part of this country, we're part of this growth, we're part of a bigger picture, and I can lay hands on things that they did.

Andrew Davenport:

It's my identity. Surely, I'm white as well, but this is part of our story.

And I would be denying a significant part of my history and our history if I didn't own up to the fact that, yes, I may pass as a white man or whatever you see in me &mdash that's up to you &mdash but I have to identify as having African-American history, and this is my story.

Jeffrey Brown:

How do you see both the injustices to and the contributions of your ancestors who were here?

Andrew Davenport:

That's the hope, that we can begin to share these stories with the wider world, so that we understand, regardless of the institution of slavery, individuals thrived, personally, within their sphere. And they made life and love here, too. So this is as complex as it gets.

Jeffrey Brown:

What about when you actually walk in that room?

Diana Redman:

Well, I see the image, and I would love to know what she looked like. But that's not meant to be. And I think that's a sadness, but that's a sadness for many descendants of enslaved families.

Jeffrey Brown:

Monticello officials are also hoping the new exhibits will help attract Americans of all races to view their common history.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.


2 thoughts on &ldquo Sally Hemmings &rdquo

I am not sure that we can say that it was outstanding for Hemings to return to the U.S. with Jefferson. I feel like it is always better to be free than enslaved and she could have had a better life had she stayed in Paris, where she would have been given greater rights. While she may have consensually entered a relationship with Jefferson, I find it puzzling that he did not free her. If he really respected her and valued her, then he wouldn’t have continued to hold her as his slave after they had been in a relationship.

I am beyond fascinated with this blog post. I find it so interesting considering that my maternal grandmother was born in France but she was forced to come to america as a teenager and married a black man so my mother and my aunts and uncles are all mixed. Also that my paternal grandmother owned slaves and my grandfather happen to be one of her family’s slaves. So this kind of hit home for me.


Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson

The publication of DNA test results showing that Thomas Jefferson was probably the father of one of his slave Sally Hemings's children has sparked a broad but often superficial debate. The editors of this volume have assembled some of the most distinguished American historians, including three Pulitzer Prize winners, and other experts on Jefferson, his times, race, and slavery. Their essays reflect the deeper questions the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson has raised about American history and national culture.

The DNA tests would not have been conducted had there not already been strong historical evidence for the possibility of a relationship. As historians from Winthrop D. Jordan to Annette Gordon-Reed have argued, much more is at stake in this liaison than the mere question of paternity: historians must ask themselves if they are prepared to accept the full implications of our complicated racial history, a history powerfully shaped by the institution of slavery and by sex across the color line.

How, for example, does it change our understanding of American history to place Thomas Jefferson in his social context as a plantation owner who fathered white and black families both? What happens when we shift our focus from Jefferson and his white family to Sally Hemings and her children? How do we understand interracial sexual relationships in the early republic and in our own time? Can a renewed exploration of the contradiction between Jefferson's life as a slaveholder and his libertarian views yield a clearer understanding of the great political principles he articulated so eloquently and that Americans cherish? Are there moral or political lessons to be learned from the lives of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the way that historians and the public have attempted to explain their liaison?

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture promises an open-ended discussion on the living legacy of slavery and race relations in our national culture.

Jan Ellen Lewis is Professor of History at Rutgers University, Newark, and author of of The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson's Virginia.

Peter S. Onuf is Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia and editor of Jeffersonian Legacies (Virginia). His new book, Jefferson's Empire will be published in April 2000.


Rumors and Scandal

Little concrete information is known about Sally Hemings’ life at Monticello. She was a seamstress, and was responsible for Jefferson&aposs room and wardrobe. The only known descriptions of Hemings come from another enslaved person at Monticello, Isaac Jefferson, who stated that she was "mighty near white . very handsome, long straight hair down her back," and Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall, who once recalled Jefferson&aposs grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph&aposs description of Hemings: "[She was] light colored and decidedly good looking."

The rumored relationship between Jefferson and his beautiful young servant began to circulate during the 1790s in both Virginia and Washington, D.C. The talk only intensified in 1802, when the journalist James Callender (once a Jefferson ally) published the accusation, which had been circling as gossip in Virginia for several years. Callender was the first to mention Hemings by name, as well as the first child, "Tom," allegedly born to Hemings and Jefferson. The fact that Hemings&apos light-skinned children bore a strong resemblance to Jefferson only increased the speculation.


IV. Research Findings and Implications

The following statements in bold type, taken from the documentary and oral history record, are considered uncontested historical or scientific facts. When viewed and interpreted in combination, these facts form the basis for our current understanding of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship. The commentary paragraphs explain the committee's interpretation of the facts. Supporting information can be found in cited Appendices.

    The DNA of Eston Hemings's descendant matched that of Field Jefferson's descendants. (Appendix A, Appendix B, and Appendix J)

This result, now part of the historical record, provides scientific support for the statements of Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson. While there is a scientific possibility that Randolph Jefferson (Jefferson's brother), one of his sons, or one of Field Jefferson's grandsons, was the father of Eston Hemings, the preponderance of known historical evidence indicates that Thomas Jefferson was his father. Randolph Jefferson and his sons are not known to have been at Monticello at the time of Eston Hemings's conception, nor has anyone, until 1998, ever before publicly suggested them as possible fathers. Field Jefferson's grandsons are unlikely candidates because of their distance from Monticello.

Jefferson's grandchildren Thomas Jefferson Randolph and Ellen Coolidge said that Jefferson's Carr nephews were the fathers of the children of Sally Hemings and her sister. The DNA study contradicts these statements in the case of Sally Hemings's last child, Eston. See No. 4 below for reasons to apply this conclusion to Hemings's other known children.

The DNA evidence indicates that, despite an enduring oral tradition in the Woodson family, Thomas Jefferson was not the father of Thomas C. Woodson. No documents have yet been found to support the belief that Woodson was Sally Hemings's first child, born soon after her return from France.

The committee analyzed the timing of Jefferson's well-documented visits to Monticello and the births of Sally Hemings's children. According to this analysis, the observed correlation between Jefferson's presence at Monticello and the conception windows for Hemings's known children is far more likely if Jefferson or someone with an identical pattern of presence at and absence from Monticello was the father. There is no documentary evidence suggesting that Sally Hemings was away from Monticello when Jefferson was there during her conception windows.

Numerous sources document the prevailing belief in the neighborhood of Monticello that Jefferson had children by Sally Hemings. Of particular note are the views of John Hartwell Cocke, Jefferson's friend and frequent visitor to Monticello, and former Monticello slave Israel Gillette Jefferson. Cocke referred to Jefferson's "notorious example" when writing in his diary about the prevalence in Virginia of "masters with slave families" and Israel Jefferson confirmed Madison Hemings's claim of Jefferson paternity.

While the DNA results bear only on the paternity of Eston Hemings, the documents and birth patterns suggest a long-term relationship, which produced the children whose names appear in Jefferson's records. Even the statements of those who accounted for the paternity of Sally Hemings's children differently (Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, and Edmund Bacon) never implied that Hemings's children had different fathers. Full-sibling relationships are further supported by the closeness of the family, as evidenced by documentation of siblings living together and naming children after each other. As mentioned in No. 3 above, there is no documentary evidence that Thomas C. Woodson was Sally Hemings's son.

Jefferson gave freedom to no other nuclear slave family. No other Monticello slaves achieved their freedom before the age of thirty-one (except for Critta Hemings's son James, who ran away). Harriet Hemings was the only enslaved woman freed in Jefferson's lifetime, and she was freed when she was twenty-one years of age. The liberation of Sally Hemings's children cannot be wholly attributed to Jefferson's practice-as reported by his granddaughter Ellen Coolidge-of granting freedom to those light enough to pass for white or skilled enough to make their way as freed people, since there were other Monticello slaves, as light-skinned or as skilled, who were not freed.

Despite a climate of hostility and denial, Madison Hemings's descendants carefully passed their family history of descent from Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson from generation to generation, often at important moments associated with rites of passage, family pride, or American history. Eston Hemings's descendants lived as white people and did not acknowledge Sally Hemings in their oral histories, in order to sever their connection with African Americans. They did, however, pass on the family tradition that they were related to Thomas Jefferson, but through one of his relatives. No descendants of Beverly and Harriet Hemings are known. For further information, see Lucia Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright, "Bonds of Memory: Identity and the Hemings Family," Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, ed. Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville, 1999).

Thomas Jefferson Randolph told Henry S. Randall in the 1850s of the close resemblance of Sally Hemings's children to Thomas Jefferson. It was evidently their very light skin and pronounced resemblance to Jefferson that led to local talk of Jefferson's paternity. Eston Hemings, in Ohio in the 1840s, was noted as bearing a "striking" resemblance to Jefferson.