The article “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, A Brief Account“, available on the official website for the Monticello Estate in Charlottesville, Virginia, begins “Years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six of Sally Heming’s children.” and ends with “Questions remain about the nature of the relationship that existed between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings…”. In that framework, the schizophrenia of the evolution of the American story of slavery is clear.
Sally’s story is too complex, too clouded by bad guardians of history, and too shrouded in a romantic idea of the choice a slave could have to do it justice in such a small piece, but too important not to bring into the light of day by anyone who can boost the signal. If you are unfamiliar with her story, I encourage you to continue your research. Her connection to the very founding of this country so clearly still in turmoil, among so many other reasons, merits our concentrated attention.
Sally Hemings, born in 1773, was the daughter of Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807), an enslaved African woman, and John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. There are no known images of her, with only four known descriptions of her appearance and personality. There are no known existing examples of her writing. Today it is astonishingly unknown if she was literate.
Sally came to Monticello as a toddler with her enslaved family as part of Jefferson’s inheritance upon the death of his father-in-law. At the age of 14, she was selected by Jefferson’s sister-in-law to accompany his daughter Maria to Paris, France, as a household servant in the Jefferson household, where she was re-united with her older brother James who had previously been transported to France by Jefferson to study French cooking. During her time in France it is known that she learned French, though it is also unclear if she could read and write it. According to Madison Heming’s account, it was here that she became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine.
At the age of 16, according to the Monticello estate, Sally “refused to come back, and only did so upon negotiate ‘extraordinary privileges’ for herself and freedom for her future children.” She was pregnant with a child that lived “but a short time” upon arriving in Virginia. There is no additional record of this child. From here, she served as an enslaved household servant, including taking care of Jefferson’s chamber and wardrobe.
During this period, Sally gave birth to six additional children, four of which survived:
- 1795, a daughter, Harriet Hemings who passed 2 years later
- 1798, a son, Beverly who survived to adulthood becoming a carpenter and fiddler
- 1799, an unnamed daughter was born and passed
- 1801, Harriet, their only surviving daughter, was born. She was a spinner in Jefferson’s textile factory.
- 1805, their son Madison was born. He became a carpenter and joiner.
- 1808, their son Eston was born. He was a carpenter and musician. It is his lineage that was used to establish the DNA connection back to his father in 1998.
In 1822, Sally’s children Beverly and Harriet Hemings were permitted to leave Monticello without being freed. It is reported that the two passed into white society without discovery of their connection to Monticello nor their African bloodline.
Upon Jefferson’s death in 1826, Sally was unofficially freed, a practice known as “giving their time” by Jefferson’s daughter Martha. His will freed Sally’s younger children, Madison and Eston.
In 1830, Sally Hemings and her sons Madison and Eston are listed as free white people in the 1830 census. In a subsequent census (1833) following the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, Sally described herself as a free mulatto who had lived in Charlottesville since 1826.
Madison Hemings reported that his mother lived with he and Eston until her death in 1835. There is no record of where she is buried.
As of the writing of the very meager post, 185 years after her death, Sally’s story is a sad reminder of how easily powerful people, alone or in group, can remove any inconvenient detail from history. It reminds us that in addition to historians, the family stories, the fiction stories, our shared human stories serve as a counter-balance to this all to familiar practice. Without this counter-balance, it is doubtful that the mother of six of one of the founding father’s children would be remembered apart from four vague and insignificant mentions from other privileged members of her contemporary society.
Sally Hemings, an enslaved girl servant who became an enslaved woman servant who performed critical household tasks in arguably one of the richest and most prestigious American households, who learned French while working and living in Paris, at least today, has been relegated to history as:
- the longtime concubine to her OWNER, beginning in her EARLY TEENS and his MID-FORTIES.
- the mother of six of said OWNER’S children, which is undisputed by the estate and includes DNA evidence, but remains somehow shrouded in questions.
- a woman who could have stayed in Paris as a free woman, but chose to negotiate the lives of future children to be born of her 44+ year old OWNER.
- The personal slave, officially of Mr. Jefferson’s daughter Maria, but known to be of Mr Jefferson himself in a great many intimate capacities.
- Never officially freed
- Physically lost to history, leaving behind no images, no writings by or about her, and no known grave to visit.
The interest in her life lends hope that we will one day know more about this elusive piece of the American puzzle. A piece, like so many other like hers, that must be faced, even if it confuses before it heals.