Query 2: Coming to Terms with Sally Hemings

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Query 2: Coming to Terms with Sally Hemings

Host(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla

Publication date: 2020-02-17

Episode Summary: Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with the enslaved woman, Sally Hemings. For generations, the details of her life story have been overshadowed by Jefferson’s iconic image and the controversy surrounding what passed between them. Who is Sally Hemings? And what is her story? What would coming to terms with her story mean for the way we understand Jefferson’s history?

Guests [in order of appearance]: Niya Bates, David Thorsen, Melody Barnes, Mia Bay, Lisa Woolfork, and Marlene Daut.

Full interview(s):

Niya Bates
David Thorsen
Melody Barnes
Mia Bay
Lisa Woolfork
Marlene Daut


DEBORAH MCDOWELL:I’m Deborah McDowell and welcome back to “Notes on the State.”

If you haven’t listened to our last episode, “Query 1: The Difference Jefferson Makes,” I encourage you to go back and check it out. As we suggested in its conclusion, one of the challenges we have set ourselves in the series is to examine “Jefferson beyond Jefferson.”

Meaning: we want to read between the lines of Thomas Jefferson’s life and writings so that we can try to open up spaces in our conversation about the man that might lead us in other directions, directions that have been suppressed or distorted, if not, avoided all together.

When we talk about Thomas Jefferson, there is perhaps no greater avoidance than Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson had six children.

NIYA BATES: So, Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is contentious as early as 1802.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:This is Niya Bates, Public Historian of Slavery and African American Life at Monticello.

NIYA BATES: James Callender smears him [Jefferson] basically in a newspaper, and he says, you know, he has children with as Callender described her “black Sal” or “dusky Sally,” and the kids look just like Thomas Jefferson (see: “The President, Again” by James Callender“). And of course, they’re using that against him as a political tool, but they’re also calling out a relationship with an enslaved woman.

Caricature of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, ca.1804, attributed to James Akin 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:In a 2018 exhibition, “the Life of Sally Hemings,” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello sought to confront the issues of sex and power hidden behind the lofty abstractions that we commonly associate with Jefferson’s writings.

According to the curators: “For 200 years, Sally Hemings has been overshadowed by Thomas Jefferson. Interest in ‘the scandal’ has obscured her identity. She was a real woman with feelings and experiences. Today we open a new space dedicated to sharing her story.” (Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello).

What then is her story?

Stay with us for this next episode of “Notes on the State” as we explore these and other questions. Our producer, James Perla will lead you through the next segment. After we’ve given you a sense of the fragmentary details and provided some overview of the exhibition, I’ll circle back to engage at greater length with some of those we interviewed for this episode.

So, let’s get started. “Query 2: Coming to Terms with Sally Hemings.”

A Tour of Monticello's Life of Sally Hemings Exhibition

JAMES PERLA: We’ve come with the “Notes on the State” research team to see the exhibition on the life of Sally Hemings at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and to take the accompanying Hemings Family Tour. The tour reworks the typical Monticello experience to incorporate the stories of the Hemings family. Although the Hemings Family Tour is a separate experience, not required for all visitors, it gives critical insights into the interconnectedness between the Hemings and Jefferson family.

Our tour guide, David Thorsen pulls us into a reconstructed slave quarter on the peripheries of Monticello’s grounds. Inside, he lays out the details, explaining the many layers of connection between the Jefferson and the Hemings family.

Exterior of wooden slave cabin
Reconstructed Slave Cabin Exterior (Credit: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello)

DAVID THORSEN:Let’s talk about the Hemings family. Let’s talk about how they find themselves on this Monticello plantation. Jefferson marries in 1772, he marries Martha Wales Skelton. She’s the daughter of John Wales who is a slave trader, and when John Wales dies, Jefferson inherits the Hemings family. Elizabeth Hemings, the matriarch of the family. She has 12 children over the course of her lifetime. Twelve children, six of those children are the children of John Wales. One of those children is Sally Hemings.

What does that mean? Jefferson’s wife, Sally Hemings? They’re half-sisters. See, now what am I talking about when I say entangled from the very beginning? So now imagine owning members of your family as property. They’re the largest enslaved family here. Over the course of his lifetime, Jefferson owned over 80 members of the Hemings family. And when he died, one-third of the people enslaved at Monticello were members of the Hemings family.

JAMES PERLA: Although the Hemings family is the largest enslaved family at Monticello.It is Sally Hemings, her children with Thomas Jefferson. That captures the public’s imagination. Though she’s the most well-known Hemmings. It’s curious that we don’t have much information about Sally Hemings herself. Here’s Niya Bates again.

NIYA BATES: While Sally Hemings has always been one of the most famous or the one of the most recognizable, enslaved women in the U S by her story, we actually don’t know a ton about her private life. There are no papers from her. We don’t have any photographs of her.

You know, the nature of slavery is that there rarely are papers from enslaved people. So, we weren’t willing to make leaps in the exhibit about her complexion or about how straight his long, straight, dark hair. She’s described as being a very handsome, which is pretty, but like what are those features mean?

JAMES PERLA: Aware of these challenges, the curators at Monticello decided to build the exhibition up from the information they did have. This is according to Melody Barnes, Vice Chair of the Board of Monticello, Professor of Practice in Public Affairs at UVA and co-director of UVA’s Democracy Initiative.

MELODY BARNES: So, what we have left behind are artifacts that have been uncovered as a result of archeology, and we have oral history and interviews by the descendants.

JAMES PERLA:The centerpiece of the exhibition rely specifically on one document from Madison Hemings. Hemings and Jefferson’s third son.

NIYA BATES: Since we didn’t have her words, the closest we could get was having her son Madison and having his testimony that he gave to a newspaper in Southern Ohio in 1873.

Pike County Republican (Ohio), March 13, 1873 (Credit: Encyclopedia Virginia)

JAMES PERLA: Researchers determined that Sally Hemings must have lived in one of two rooms below Jefferson’s home. So that’s where Monticello decided to locate the exhibition.

NIYA BATES: The room itself is very simple. There’s no furniture. You walk in and then there’s a multimedia presentation, and that’s narrated exclusively by Madison with some background sounds to illuminate the activities. So that’s what we decided to do in this space, is to make it as beautiful as possible and to allow people to have a most intimate conversation with Sally Hemings.

Exterior of Hemings Exhibition
Exterior shot of the exhibit, “The Life of Sally Hemings.” (Credit: Stacey Evans / Monticello Exhibits)

Hemings' in Paris

JAMES PERLA: The exhibition uses the words of Madison Hemings to represent the recollections of Sally Hemings. It’s interesting because the video hews so closely to Madison’s testimony in the Ohio newspaper that the life of Sally Hemings exhibition starts not with when Sally Hemings is born, not with when the Hemings family first arrived at Monticello, but instead when her relationship with Thomas Jefferson first begins, and that’s in Paris, France, around 1787.

Let’s let Mia Bay, an historian at the University of Pennsylvania, fill us in.

MIA BAY: So he brought Sally over to France. She was about 14 at that age, and she lived with the Jefferson family. Possibly part of the time at the school with Jefferson’s two girls, but certainly in his household for a couple of years. And the things we know for sure is that when she returned, when, with the Jefferson family to Virginia, she was– about 16 years old– and she was pregnant and it was a Thomas Jefferson’s child, according to the testimony of her son, Madison Hemings.

JAMES PERLA: The video in the Hemings exhibition continues to quote the newspaper article with the testimony of Madison Hemings to say:

JOSHUA ST. HILL (AS MADISON HEMINGS): “He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him, but she demurred. In France, she was free. While if she returned to Virginia, she would be re-enslaved. So, she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so, he promised her extraordinary privileges and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of 21 years. In consequence of his promise on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.

Plaque in French
Memorial plaque marking where Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris

JAMES PERLA: A bit of context here: Hemings was technically free in Paris because in the early 1800s following the French Revolution, slavery was abolished. So, enslaved peoples brought into the country could petition the French government for their freedom.

As a result, historians believe that Hemings might’ve had some leverage, especially given her son’s account. She might’ve had the possibility to negotiate on behalf of herself and her children. But Mia Bay says we should take any such deal promising exceptional privileges with a grain of salt.

MIA BAY: Yeah, scholars have discussed the possibility that Hemings could have petitioned for her freedom in France and would have been likely to receive it in a French court. That’s the way court cases went in France during this period.

It’s this sort of challenging idea though, because Sally, during her years in France is like 14 years old, 15 years old, maybe crosses into 16. But she doesn’t have a lot of personal support or even access to information about how she would go about doing this. And of course, she may want to return home and see her family,

DAVID THORSEN: To have gained freedom and France.

JAMES PERLA: Here’s tour guide David Thorsen again.

DAVID THORSEN:Means freedom and France. It doesn’t mean freedom in the United States. It doesn’t mean you’re going to come home free. What it also means if you stay in France, are you ever going to see your mom again? Are you going to see your family again? Are you ever going to see Virginia again?

Even though you might be enslaved, you can become attached to a physical place and think that it is home regardless of your circumstances. So, I agree. There’s a lot more to unpack than what today we can just say, “well, why didn’t they do that? They could have been free!” It’s complicated when you start to break down all the parts of what freedom meant.

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson's Children

JAMES PERLA: While Hemings might not have had many options. Between striking out on her own in Paris or returning to a slave plantation in Virginia. She was returning to an extended family and network of kin, the largest enslaved family at Monticello.

Ultimately, as we know, she does return. And gives birth to her first child with Thomas Jefferson. Though this child dies in infancy, Sally Hemings goes on to bear five more of Jefferson’s children, six in total, four of whom survive into adulthood: Beverly, Madison, Harriet, and Eston.

Exhibition silhouette
Inside the Sally Hemings Exhibition (Credit: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello)

Having given birth to these children, it is reasonable to suppose that Hemings acted like many other enslaved women in the interest of what was best for her family and future children negotiating when she could and using whatever leverage she had at her disposal.

NIYA BATES: So we can’t rule out the possibility that Sally Hemings, even at the young age of 16 had the foresight to negotiate some power in the situation for herself and freedom for their four children who survived

JAMES PERLA:The video then gestures at their life at Monticello. There’s some images projected in silhouette of children running around. It explains how Madison himself became a carpenter. Their sister Harriet learned how to spin and weave. They all went on to marry and have children of their own, but Madison’s account also points out that Jefferson didn’t show any fatherly affection to his children with Hemings.

MELODY BARNES: Her son says, essentially Jefferson didn’t treat us any differently than any other of the enslaved children.

JAMES PERLA:This is Melody Barnes, again.

MELODY BARNES: What I hear when I read that is: “why were we treated differently. If we were his children, why weren’t we treated better?”

“The Life of Sally Hemings” exhibition video (Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello)


JAMES PERLA: This question gets at a larger challenge of engaging with Hemings and Jefferson story, a challenge that the exhibition confronts, and that is to do two things at once: to gesture at the humanity of Sally Hemings and her children, but also at the same time to show the reality of slavery, the violence that was slavery, the violence that Jefferson enacted against Sally Hemings and his children.

MIA BAY:I mean, he doesn’t care that much whether the slaves he actually fathers end up free in any meaningful way. I mean, we know that there are other slave owners who send their mixed-race children to Oberlin and make sure they have a life in the North. He does none of that! Harriet Hemings gets put on a stagecoach to Philadelphia with $50. One of them runs away. And the others are freed after a long apprenticeship at the end of Jefferson’s life. So…

NIYA BATES: You know, I think we have to look at Jefferson’s racial beliefs to really get to the core of understanding what happened with his children.

JAMES PERLA: Here’s Niya Bates again.

NIYA BATES: He writes in Notes on the State of Virginia and it’s law at the time, basically that anyone who is seven-eights white is white. And his children was Sally Hemings are seven-eights white! They are light enough to pass.

So, he allows Beverly and Harriet– the two oldest, Beverly being his oldest son and Harriet being their only daughter together– He frees them. And they pass into white society, and we never hear from them again.

When he dies, Eston and Madison are then freed in the will and they go to live in Charlottesville where in 1830, they’re both listed as free white, along with their mother Sally Hemings.

And, from there they moved to Southern Ohio. One of them chooses to remain African American, and that’s Madison. And, his brother Eston decides to move one more time to Wisconsin, changes his name from Eston Hemings to E.H. Jefferson and his descendants go on believing that they are Irish immigrants.

That’s passed down in the oral history. So, it’s complicated, but I think the core of their racial identity is really why Jefferson frees them.

Beverly Frederick Jefferson (left) grandson of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson with his three sons, circa 1900s (Credit: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello)

JAMES PERLA:The curators do well to end the exhibition with a coda detailing these bare facts: “Thomas Jefferson owned 607 people over the course of his lifetime. He freed only seven and let three others leave Monticello. They were all members of the extended Hemings family, four or his children.”

The rest of the family’s enslaved on Jefferson’s plantation. Those who, according to Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed, “spent more time at Monticello than Jefferson himself” ultimately ended up being sold off to pay Jefferson’s debts following his death in 1826. David Thorsen explains.

DAVID THORSEN: He dies $107,000 in debt. That works out to a kind of the low-end estimate is $4.2 million. What does that that mean to Monticello’s enslave community? The auction block.

About six months after Jefferson’s death, on a cold January day, the 15th of January, 1827, almost all the furniture, the fine art taken are out of the house. And 30 human beings are on the very same auction block with that furniture right on the West lawn of Monticello.

And think about auctioneers, appraising human beings alongside a table and a chair, setting a dollar value on the life of the human being. Think about all the families, are they being sold intact? In many cases, they’re being broken up, sold to different owners, owners who are going to take them out of Virginia separating these families.

So, this whole world that Jefferson creates at Monticello comes crashing down for everyone on the Monticello plantation, not the least of which is that enslaved community who had worked all their lives, who built the house, struggled in the fields, worked along Mulberry row.

Slave Purchase Receipt
Bill of Sale for Purchase of Slaves from Thomas Jefferson’s Estate (Original Manuscript in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, University of Virginia)

Interrogating the connection between them

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So here we are. Sally Hemings was not sold nor legally freed. Following Jefferson’s death, his daughter, Martha permits Hemings, her half-aunt to leave Monticello. Reportedly, when she did, she took a pair of Jefferson’s eyeglasses with her (See: Jill Lepore, These Truths). She goes on to live with her sons, Madison and Eston in Charlottesville.

After spending 35 years, the better part of her natural life on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. Sally Hemings lives on as a woman, a mother, a matron, and a maternal presence to her sons until she dies in 1835.

It is important to emphasize that the story of Sally Hemings and her children does not end with the demise of the Monticello plantation. But like so many formerly enslaved women, Hemings apparently kept her memories to herself carrying them to the grave. Thus, leaving generations of historians to simply speculate about who she was and what she was to Thomas Jefferson speculate about their relationship. And what it meant and continues to mean for the mythical story of the American national family.

Since it seems impossible to think these two figures apart, we want to spend a little bit of time to probe the connection between them. Drilling down into the term we use to talk about them.

DAVID THORSEN: So, I say “connection” to start off that conversation, that dialogue about trying to unpack. We know what Madison Hemings told us, so that gives us some perspective. We also have the perspective of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and I’ll share their perspective.

Some of those descendants see a love affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Other descendants see something much, much different than a love affair. They see the opposite.

Other descendants see a young woman trying to navigate the world of slavery in such a way that as her son, Madison says, creates a treaty with Jefferson that allows what allows her children to become free.

So, there’s multiple answers to this question. Which answer is right? I would tell you that no one, no one, knows.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:Out of convenience, perhaps, many have wanted to call it “a relationship” or “an affair,” but there are others who for understandable reasons, find both terms offensive. These terms, implied choice and consent. They rightly argue, and Sally Hemings had neither under slavery. Here’s Mia Bay again, the historian from the University of Pennsylvania we heard from earlier in this episode.

MIA BAY: What troubles me sometimes about the discussion of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is sort of the idea that they’re both these kind of free agents operating in a world of choices. It’s– Sally Hemings, having grown up in a slave community probably never saw herself as a free agent or you know, she, I think she probably saw herself as someone who was a member of a particular community, a particular class…

Was it rape?

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: In this segment, we want to linger over some of the terminology we use to discuss or describe the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, even though we know full-well that the Monticello exhibition was designed for an audience not as attuned or sensitive to, or even interested in the nuances that command our attention as scholars.

Even so, it is striking to note that in seeking to tell the story of Sally Hemings, even for a general audience, the curators of the Monticello exhibition decided against a definitive reading of what passes between Hemings and Jefferson.

They chose instead to pose a series of provocative questions: “was it rape? Was there any affection? And was compliance part of her agreement with Jefferson?”

Exhibition signage detail (Photo: Notes on the State)

It is striking to note that in seeking to tell the story of Sally Hemings, even for a general audience, the curators of the Monticello exhibition decided against a definitive reading of what passes between Hemings and Jefferson. They chose instead to pose a series of provocative questions: “was it rape? Was there any affection? And was compliance part of her agreement with Jefferson?”

We found it surprising that Melody Barnes endorsed the decision of the curators to raise the question of rape.

MELODY BARNES: When people go, they will see a sign outside of her room about the issue of rape, recognizing the lack of agency that enslaved women had. Simply by virtue of being born into slavery, she could not control her own body, her destiny, her decisions, she couldn’t wake up and say, “you know what? I ain’t doing that.”

She didn’t have those choices that we have today, and because that includes control over her body, we felt that it was absolutely necessary. It was, it would be irresponsible not to call that question and not to require those who visit that exhibit to look in the eye of what it would be like to have been Sally Hemings and that period of time, and literally one of the most powerful men in the country owns you.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:For many historians and lay people alike, this is the crux of the matter. For them, we owe it to her to call that question to assert outright that the man who owned Sally Hemings, raped Sally Hemings. And that this rape likely began when she was between the ages of 14 and 16 while in France with Jefferson and his daughters.

For this reason, Lisa Woolfork, Associate Professor of English at UVA, isn’t inclined to relinquish the concept of rape.

LISA WOOLFORK: I think that, I think the word is absolutely useful. I mean, what other word would you use to have sex with someone who cannot consent to have sex with you? This was Jefferson having sex with a teenager that he owned in body and in spirit. This is someone who, he owned this person in any shadow she might cast.

It seems significant to me that he never freed her. And that there was something about her captivity that was essential to the relationship. And so, I don’t know if you call it compromised consent, I don’t know how it’s even possible to make that determination. But when someone cannot consent, it’s like having sex with someone who is asleep. Is that rape? I’d say so.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:The decision to raise the question of rape. It’s clearly meant to establish the brutality of slavery, most especially as enacted on the body of an enslaved woman. It is meant to go to the very heart of the power imbalances that defined the institution.

That’s said, however, we want to spend a bit of time with a question that Monticello has invited us to ponder: was it rape? What is the lost and for that matter, what is gained when we use that term to describe what many refer to as an everyday occurrence on any slave plantation?

In other words, how does saying that Jefferson raped Hemings help us to understand Hemings, his humanity, her life in full? Mia Bay urges us to consider the fact that this term is anachronistic. During Jefferson’s time, it simply didn’t exist, especially not in an illegal sense.

MIA BAY:One thing you have to come to terms with about slavery is that it is a system that sets up the possibility of the sexual exploitation of young slave women, and then it’s very, very, very common. There are possibly more accurate or less anachronistic ways to talk about something so systematic. I mean, you know, and now I don’t want to deny anyone’s experience of non-consent by saying don’t call it a rape, but maybe we need to also think about it somehow differently or in more complicated ways.

Moral interpretations

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: We acknowledge that this is a matter of historical interpretation. Are we bound to honor and hew to strict historical accuracies? Two strictly legal understandings. If so, we would have to say that rape is an anachronistic term. It wasn’t technically operable in the 18th century.

Or do we say: “historical accuracy aside, anachronism be damned.” If we don’t hold ourselves to issues of historical strictness and accuracy, then the space is open to insert moral arguments and judgments about the rights and wrongs of slavery. Let’s hear from Niya Bates again.

NIYA BATES:The things that are critical to point out about the relationship, the sexual relationship, at least between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, is that there is a gross power imbalance. She is second generation biracial, so that means her mother had children by a white man, and her grandmother did the same. He is 30 years her senior. He’s her owner. She does not have the ability or the power to say no in this situation.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:We don’t want to appoint ourselves the language police, but we do want to stress that the language we use in conversations about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson entangles us in the brambles of historical interpretation.

More, it forces us to think about how our ideological positions in the present moment influence the ways we see the past.

MELODY BARNES: Taking what we know, taking what we feel, taking who we are today, and putting that all together to have a conversation and to engage in that and to let the mind wrap around that is so difficult for us. And that’s why I think we struggle to talk about and to wrestle with what we know about slavery.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: We’ve opened up this discussion about rape, not just because the curators raised it in the exhibition, but rather in an effort to come to terms with “one of the most common, if least understood aspects of southern slave society: the exact nature of the relationship between enslaved blacks and the white slave owning families to whom they were linked by blood” (Gordon-Reed, Onuf, 2018)

Interior of Reconstructed Slave Cabin (Credit: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello)

Once again, the extensive research of historians provides us some license here. To borrow from Walter Johnson, Professor of History at Harvard, we must be able to view the lives of enslaved people as powerfully conditioned by slavery, though not reducible to slavery (Johnson, 115). And if we can make this leap, then we can imagine Hemings, we must be able to imagine Hemings as something more than Jefferson’s victim. Annette Gordon-Reed made that imaginative leap some years ago.

Book cover for Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello

NIYA BATES: Yeah, in Annette’s work she puts out the possibility that it could have been a romantic relationship. And I think her approach there is that if we just call it rape, then we remove any possibility that Sally Hemings had any agency in the relationship.

We can all imagine even in contemporary America situations where a relationship may have been consensual and then wasn’t or started out as rape and became consensual.

So there, there’s a spectrum of where this relationship could have fallen. This could have been something or our strategy for her to achieve a more privilege for her children.

So there are lots of things that are play…

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: As literary scholar, of course, I’m inclined to have many references to literature and especially to the literature of enslaved people. So, I think when I think about Sally Hemings about Harriet Jacobs, for example.

And Harry Jacobs, while she fends herself against the unwanted sexual aggressions of her owner, Dr. Flint, she does enter willingly into a relationship with another white plantation owner. And she talks about it explicitly as a choice on her part. “It is better to give oneself” is what she’s saying, in essence, I’m paraphrasing her–Than you know–in other words, to choose your own love object than to have somebody forced, forced himself upon you.

This is not to erase any of the complications you have introduced into the conversation, but to say that this is so bedeviling because we have to consider all of these issues in space and time.

NIYA BATES: Exactly. And I think that’s a really good point you make. We know from her son Madison, that, in negotiating with Thomas Jefferson, she negotiated extraordinary privilege for herself.

They have six children together, two dies, infants and four live to be adults. And they’re all freed. They are the only nuclear family at Monticello for that to happen! Which is I think why we have to give it a space to not just be rape and to not just be consent… Perhaps there’s more there.

What more is at play?

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: What more would that be? Well, for starters, Sally Hemings reportedly remained with Thomas Jefferson for 35 years. As a member of the Hemings clan, Sally and her kin were treated different from other members of the enslaved population.

One of Hemings’ brothers trained to become a skilled woodworker. Her brother James trained as a chef in Paris. Her sister Mary formed a long-term common law relationship with a slave holding man who lived openly with her and their children (See: “Mary Hemings Bell” article in the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia). Let’s let tour guide David Thorsen explain:

DAVID THORSEN: Over the course of time… It is really members of the Hemings family who take up positions of relative privilege on this Monticello plantation. So, Jefferson’s making choices about the people who are enslaved here.

In the case of the Hemings family, he’s literally aligning that family with his own family. So, what do you think? Is it typical or not typical on a Virginia plantation, on any Southern plantation, for the master to select one family from the enslaved community and then align that family with his own family? It’s relatively common for this to occur.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: If we dare to think that what passed between. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was not simply rape. Then we must challenge ourselves to ask other questions. Indeed, Annette Gordon-Reed herself has invoked the term “attachment” to describe him in the relationship with Jefferson (Gordon-Reed, “Annette Gordon-Reed on the Jefferson-Hemings Relationship”).

The curators at Monticello invoke yet another term when they ask, “was there any affection” (“The Life of Sally Hemings” exhibition, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello).

For those concerned that the language of “affection” or even “attachment” serves to put a gloss on bondage, we see their point. Even Melody Barnes had trouble entertaining the idea that there could be or could have been affection between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

MELODY BARNES: I believe it is hard to imagine that there is something loving that could have emanated from the horror that was slavery because of the genocide that was slavery because it was destructive in the most fundamental sense of the word. And that’s why I believe it is so difficult, virtually impossible to wrap your arms or your mind or your heart around that.

Because it also, I think it requires individuals to think someone that would buy and sell people, someone that would rip families apart, someone that would allow individuals to be beaten Within an inch of their life, if not taking their life… Someone who would see a person try to flee to freedom and send out slave catchers or an overseer to capture them and bring them back.

How could that person also be in love with an enslaved person? Because if you love them, wouldn’t you let them be free?

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Surely, Barnes’ point is important: slavery, so deformed human connections so thoroughly is the idea of imagining love, affection, or tenderness between an enslaved woman and her and slaver is a non-starter.

And yet we can’t simply omit from consideration the full range of human emotions, desires, and feelings of Sally Hemings. When trying to imagine how people actually lived within such a brutal system, we know that human emotions were cultivated, existed in that environment, and they existed in complex and unexpected ways.

Hemings' Humanity

Imagining what Hemings might have thought or felt allows us to begin to see her in the fullness of her humanity, to see her as a person who may have thought strategically about her life and the future of her children beyond the institution of slavery. Let’s turn again Niya Bates.

NIYA BATES: He freed Sally Hemings children because they made an agreement, and as Madison says, he upheld that a verbal agreement with an enslaved woman.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:Let’s sit with that a minute: the third president of the United States. A diplomat. The former Secretary of State. Governor of Virginia. Founding Father of the Republic, upholds a verbal agreement with an enslaved woman, a woman who is not supposed to have any legal standing within society.

And thus, Sally Hemings did what most enslaved people did: “seized whatever narrow options they could.” This is the argument Daina Raimey Barry makes in an article “How Sally Hemings and Other Enslaved People Secured Pockets of Freedom:” “enslaved women and girls used what little leverage they had to carve out a better place for their future children.”

Sally Hemings listed with her children in Jefferson’s Farm Book, Feb. 1810
(Credit: Massachusetts Historical Society)

Hemings was by law, Jefferson’s property, but she was also a human being “with a full understanding of the power of law. And how she might turn it to her advantage.

Hemings extracted promises from Jefferson that provided her children and almost 50-year head start on emancipation” (Gordon-Reed, “Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings and the Ways we Talk about Our Past“).

Marlene Daut, professor of Africana Studies and American Studies and Associate Director of the Woodson Institute says that it is this fact that is nothing short of radical.

MARLENE DAUT: If you survive and you ensure the survival of your children in a system of death that wants to kill them, that wants them to be below the ground–there are enslaved people are below the ground at this very site, right?– Then I say, I think survival is radical.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: We are well aware of just how easy it is to suggest that despite all of slavery’s brutalities, it’s exploitation, it’s violence that those who were enslaved still managed somehow to be all right. We are aware we the problems in this way of thinking because what we do know is that many, many people were broken and undone by the institution of slavery. Many couldn’t “muster signs of human connection.”

And so, in acknowledging those who did, we are by no means seeking to romanticize survival. But we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there were people determined that “slavery would not be victorious over their lives” and over the lives of those they loved. And it is important that their determination to survive be recorded as often as we can.

This is something that sits well with Melody Barnes, who often has to field such questions as, why do we even need Monticello? It is nothing more than a monument to brutality.

MELODY BARNES: Some people will say, “I don’t even understand why Monticello exists.” And, in part, my reaction to that is, “and so you want to erase the Hemings family? And the Grangers and the Fossetts and the Herns? And all of their stories” which are also stories…. They’re obviously stories of pain and hard labor and beatings and all the things that went into that. But there are also stories about how men and women loved one another and took care of their children.

That there were over 600 enslaved men, women, and children who were there, Sally Hemings being one of them. And yes, it was Jefferson’s home, but Jefferson did not live there alone. Nor was he able to do the good and the bad that happened there alone. The leveling of that mountain, the building of that house. The keeping and building of the farm and the plantation. All of that was because of all of the other people who were in labor there as slaves.

Aerial view of Monticello and Mulberry Row (Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello)


DEBORAH MCDOWELL: What have we learned here? That Sally Hemings does not fit into the narratives that we have inherited about enslaved women, the narratives we seek to preserve. That the multitude of experiences under the oppressive regime of slavery experiences in the context of a brutal, unjust system were not uniform, nor were these experiences reducible entirely to brutality.

Seeing Hemings’ life and history in fuller dimension than that which we have inherited allows us to talk about her as something more than a symbol and exemplar of the founding violence of the nation. If we view her in this fuller light, we see those aspects of her story that don’t fit into any easy categories whether of victimized woman or woman who resisted victimization.

“Coming to terms” with Sally Hemings means that we must accept that she was no mere minor figure in the life of Thomas Jefferson. “Coming to terms” with Sally Hemings means accepting that her life like that of other enslaved women must have defied easy categories of compliance or resistance. “Coming to terms with Sally Hemings” may ultimately mean acknowledging this: that while Jefferson may have cast a long shadow over her life and history in many ways, Sally Hemings casts a shadow over his.

And that shadow extends beyond Hemings and Jefferson beyond the mountaintop, beyond Monticello and the time of slavery for we all live within the complex shadow of slavery and continue to wrestle with the racialized systems of power and inequality it structured so masterfully. These systems of inequality, foundational to the American national story have continued to unleash divisions with which we must all eventually come to terms.

Sources and further reading

A poem on the Jefferson/Sally Hemings affairBoston Gazette. December 27, 1802.

Ahebee, Sojourner. “valentine for Sally Hemings.” Poetry.org. June 19, 2014.

Annette Gordon-Reed on the Jefferson-Hemmings Relationship [Video]” Big Think. April 23, 2012.

Araujo, Ana Lucia. “Jefferson was not a benevolent slave owner and doesn’t need any apologists.” A Historian’s View.July 6, 2018

Ashley M. Jones on ‘What It Means To Say Sally Hemings.'” Poetry Society of America. Accessed: March 4, 2019.

Baker, Thomas N.. “‘A Slave’ Writes Thomas Jefferson.” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 1, 2011, pp. 127 – 154.

Bay, Mia. “In Search of Sally Hemings In the Post-DNA Era.” Reviews In American History, vol. 34, no. 4, 2006, p. 407. 

Berry, Daina Ramey. “How Enslaved Women and Girls Secured Pockets of Freedom.” History.com, July 9, 2018.

Berry, Daina Ramey et. al. Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas. University of Georgia Press, 2018.

Blades, Lincoln Anthony. “Why You Can’t Ever Call an Enslaved Woman a ‘Mistress.'” Teen Vogue. February 27, 2017.

Chase-Riboud, Barbara, and Gordon S. Wood. “The Sally Hemings Case.” Callaloo, vol. 32, no. 3, 2009, p. 822.

Chase-Riboud, Barbara. Sally Hemings: A Novel. Ballantine Books, 1994.

Dibinga, Omekongo. “Sally Hemings (a poem).” July 3, 2017.

Ekoko-Kay, Evelyna. “Sally in Paris.” Voicemail Poems. August 20, 2019.

Fuentes, Marisa J. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Gallagher, Edward J. et. al. “Jefferson in Court: An Overview.” The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, Episode 12. Lehigh University, 2012.

Getting Word African American Oral History Project. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

Hellenbrand, Harry. “Hellenbrand on Gordon-Reed, ‘Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.‘”

Walter Johnson. “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37.1 (2003):  113-124

LeFlouria, Talthia. “When Slavery is Erased from Plantations.” The Atlantic. September 2, 2018.

Lepore, Jill. These Truths: A History of the United States. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Madison Hemings Family [entry].” Getting Word African American Oral History Project.

Mary Hemings Bell [entry]” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.

P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al. “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help” community-sourced document, April 9, 2019.

Reed-Annette Gordon. “Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and the Ways We Talk About Our Past.” The New York Times. August 24, 2017.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. W.W. Norton & Co, 2008.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Gordon-Reed, Annette, and Peter S. Onuf. “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016. 

Natanson, Hannah. “Two centuries ago University of Virginia students beat and raped enslaved servants historians say.” The Washington Post. October 6, 2019.

Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.” Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2000

Sebree, Chet’la. Mistress. New Issues Press, Wester Michigan University, 2019. 

Stanton, Lucia. “Monticello to Main Street: The Hemings Family and Charlottesville.” The Magazine of Albemarle County History 55 (1997): 97-104, 124-25.

Stanton, Lucia C. “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. University of Virginia Press, 2012. 

The 1827 Slave Auction at Monticello [online exhibit].” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The Life of Sally Hemings [online exhibit].” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

“Thomas Jefferson to Francis C. Gray, 4 March 1815,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-08-02-0245. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 8, 1 October 1814 to 31 August 1815, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011, pp. 310–312.]

Woodson, Carter G. “The Beginnings of the Miscegenation of the Whites and Blacks.” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Oct., 1918), pp. 335-353

Woolfork, Lisa. “Thomas Jefferson is the R. Kelly of the American Enlightenment.” The Washington Post.February 15, 2019.

Jeopardy! References to Sally Hemings.

Thomas Jefferson Meets Sally Hemings.” Saturday Night Live, Season 28, 2002.