Sally Hemings was just a toddler, born into slavery in Virginia when she knew of Thomas Jefferson. Years later, in Paris, where she was free as a fourteen year old, she would pull off a epic negotiation with a much older seasoned statesman, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and then would later become the President of the United States. Was it love, was it necessity, forceable, or was it free will? Just what happened in the relationship between the married father Jefferson and the young back slave Sally Hemings? Why was this commonplace , a aging man and a barely teen-aged girl?
Sally Hemings was born into slavery in 1773, Her mothers name was Elizabeth Hemings, and her father was rumored to be John Wayles, who was Martha Jefferson’s, (Thomas Jefferson’s wife ) Father. If you were of a white father and a black mother that was enslaved, you were automatically a slave. The Hemings family came over to Thomas Jefferson as inheritance on Mr. Wayles passing. It is said that Mr. Wayles and Elizabeth had 6 children together. Very few details of Sally’s childhood are known, even her month or date of birth.
In this era, slave trades were ongoing, the breeding was intentional between “master” and slave, so that more slaves could be produced. They would find a strapping male slave and “breed” with female slaves for production.
When Sally was fourteen she was chosen to accompany Jefferson’s daughter Maria to Paris, France as a lady’s maid. Jefferson had been appointed as the American Liason to France and while there he had obviously developed a relationship with Ms Hemings. This was 1787-1789, the Revolutionary war was over, and George Washington was the first president of the United States.
Slaves were in no position to say no, they had to acquiesce to whatever they were told to do. Can you imagine, being a 15 year old, and having the girl you were the maid to’s father, now telling you that in addition to being his daughters servant , you were now his mistress? This is not an isolated incident, for this was rather commonplace, as Jefferson’s own wife’s father did this as well. It was merely, not spoken about and people carried on with their lives. Never questioning.
But Sally Hemings did question. She had a conversation and negotiation with Jefferson. She knew in Paris she was free. If she did go back with him, to Virginia and Monticello, she wanted some assurances. She wanted her children’s freedoms when they became of age and special privileges for them. She knew she was at the time already carrying their first child. It seems obvious that she did trust him and perhaps have some feelings and him for her, for why would he make these bargains? According to law at the time, he did not have to make any bargain. This may have been what the French term a Placage, meaning “to place with ” or a Left Handed Marriage. These were civil unions of sorts, often with a European born man and a black woman. Whatever the ultimate bargain was we will never know, and once she had these assurances, she went went back to Virginia, however the first child died soon after birth.
Sally had six pregnancies, four children survived. Beverly born in 1798, a son who lived to be a carpenter and musician, 1801 Harriet- a spinner in a textile company owned by Jefferson, Madison a son 1805 Carpenter and Joiner, and Eston, a son 1808 a carpenter and a Musician. It is not known what their relationship truly was with Jefferson. Both sons were musicians and Jefferson was certainly well to do with a violin. In 2017, archaeologists unearthed a room in Monticello that they believe to be Hemings quarters, that are adjacent to Jefferson rooms. It was a simple bedroom that measured 14 feet 8 inches wide and 13 feet long. There were no windows, but it is believed that it may have been the area where their children had been born and that Hemings stayed. In 1967 the area was converted into bathrooms. Monticello is now restoring the area back to a bedroom and will be showing it on the Hemings tour.
Jefferson Died on July 4, 1823. In his will, as promised, he freed the children. Sally was freed on “time served”by Jefferson’s daughter Martha. She lived in Charlottesville, VA with her son Madison until her death in 1835. Her daughter Harriet and son Beverly moved away and passed into white society, where they never mentioned their affiliation with Jefferson. Madison and Eston did mention the relationship and changed their last name to Jefferson. It was passed down to their descendants and when DNA came into being it was used to prove that they were indeed kin to Jefferson.
Many years later when the DNA came forth, the descendants of Sally have been invited to Monticello to gatherings as more has been pieced together. Talk of reparations for slavery has been ongoing. Often many times we say things are in the past, why should we worry about that now? These complex manifestations can have a hold on family dynamics for centuries. Dr. Michele Andrasik states that each individual event is profoundly traumatic and when you look at events as a whole, they represent a history of sustained cultural disruption and community destruction. It is time we realize that innocent children, people of color, and other minorities need to have some assurances that they are not still lost to this world, that there is hope for the future. We can work together, offer programs, and set up things the right way that will assist in achieving successes, and eliminate the undercarriage of those that can assault and take advantage of those in the minority.