Sally Hemings, Who?

by Lauren Sklba, Contributing Writer

Almost overshadowed by March Madness, Women’s History Month brings to the surface and refocuses the spotlight on the many women who have been washed out the historical narrative. Sally Hemings is one of these women.

Hemings was born into slavery in 1773. Her mother, Elizabeth, birthed seven children to John Wayles, who was also their master in Virginia. This was during the time of the 1662 birthright law, which stated that children would take on the same status (free or enslaved) as their mother, regardless of who their father was. This gave white slave masters freedom to sexually assault enslaved women without consequence, while simultaneously upholding the purity of white women. This exploitation of black womanhood would follow Hemings the rest of her life.

Martha is the better-known daughter of Wayles. Not only was she Hemings’ half sister, but she was also the only woman Thomas Jefferson ever married. When Martha married Jefferson, Hemings, along with her mother and brother, were transferred to Jefferson’s estate. Hemings spent her young life attending to Jefferson’s daughters, Patsy and Polly, who were also her own nieces. Upon her death in 1782, Martha asked that Jefferson not remarry, and while he granted this request, it cannot be said that he did not pursue another.

Three years after Jefferson left Virginia to serve as American minister in Paris, Hemings found herself tagging along to continue her role overseeing Polly. This seemed a bit off to some, including Abigail Adams. In a letter sent the spring of 1787, Adams noted that Hemings was “quite a child,” commenting on the strangeness of Polly’s lady’s maid being hardly old enough to take care of herself.[1] Regardless, Hemings made her way to Paris and spent the next two years there, even when Polly went away to school and Hemings’ role as a lady’s maid was no longer needed.

Her youth evaporated quickly in her time abroad. She learned French and earned her own wages. She dressed in proper clothing, shedding the appearance of an enslaved woman from New England. In many ways, this was Hemings’s first experience with personal freedom. Yet she would remain enslaved and choose to return to Virginia in 1789 as a mother-to-be, rather than the child she was upon her arrival. The unborn child’s father, as we know, was Thomas Jefferson.

When it was time for Jefferson to return to Virginia in 1789, the conditions that doubly oppressed Hemings throughout her life, being not only enslaved but also a woman, provided her leveraging power when Jefferson asked her to return with him.

According to her son’s memoir,[2] Hemings desired to remain in Paris. France was beginning to feel like home, and there she was able to be free and keep her wages. There was also an even more significant fact influencing Hemings’ desire to remain in France: French law no longer upheld slavery. Having entered into a period of revolution in 1789, the French upheld the values of “liberty, equality, fraternity” and recognized that slavery was incompatible with revolutionary ideology. Even before this, court cases involving enslaved people were uniformly successful on their behalf after 1750.[3] This, of course, meant that the moment she stepped on French soil, Hemings had access to freedom petitions which would fall in her favor.

Yet, Hemings agreed to return to Virginia with Jefferson’s promise of “extraordinary privileges” and the freedom of her children when they turned 21.

But why would Hemings take this bargain rather than guaranteed freedom in France at face value?

The answer some people jump to is “love.” The child Hemings was carrying at this time was Jefferson’s. Of course she would want to return and keep her future family in tact. But this answer would be wrong, as it actively ignores the lived experiences that shaped Hemings’s life up to this point. And today, there still seems to be large confusion over the role of choice in this relationship.

A recent article posted by Teen Vogue discusses the issue of choice and sexual agency in regards to Hemings in a response to The Washington Post’s use of the word “mistress” in reference to Hemings’ relationship with Jefferson. “…it’s insulting to identify the relationship between a slave and a slave-owner using the term ‘mistress’ when that term denotes a relationship predicated on mutual choice, autonomy, and affirmative consent—things slaves do not have,” Lincoln Blades wrote for Teen Vogue.

Hemings was victim to a captive sexual relationship.[4] Her relationship with Jefferson was one of coersubmission, referring to “sexual relations that appear consensual when in fact that are shaped by the forcible protocols of slavery.”[5]  As an enslaved person, she lacked personal agency and was under Jefferson’s control. This is compounded by the fact that Hemings was still considered childlike when her relations with Jefferson would have started. The reach of his control likely extended to her sexual relationships, and as a result, theirs was not one of mutual affection: it was rape.*

Hemings’s reality was marked by slavery and ongoing oppression, not romance. The 1662 law, partus sequitur ventrem, stating that her children would follow the “condition of the mother” still plagued enslaved mothers in the United States. Even though Jefferson was most likely the father of all of Hemings’s seven known children, four of whom lived to adulthood, all of Hemings’s children would remain enslaved.

The agreement reached by Hemings and Jefferson in 1789 was therefore necessarily an act of manipulation of her situation, by both parties involved.

According to testimony from her son, Madison, Hemings was able to establish herself as the negotiator. If she was to return to Virginia, she would not go easily, and she would take into account and use her unique circumstances for leverage to secure the future of her family. [6]

Being free in Paris would not have been an easy life for Hemings. Pursuing a lawsuit for her freedom would have proven difficult, as she was most likely illiterate. If she were to win her freedom, she did not have any property and only two years of experience as a lady’s maid. It is also likely that Hemings was already pregnant at the time of bargaining with Jefferson, which would have made self-sufficiency in France nearly impossible. [7]

While Paris did have a small community of color, made up of a majority of men in their late teens and early twenties who could have served as potential companions for Hemings, it must be remembered that staying in Paris would have disconnected her from her large but tight-knit community in Virginia. And to think that this was not a thought that crossed Hemings’s mind would be ignoring the reverence of kinship within the African-American communities under slavery.[8] In fact, Hemings’ brother, James, had also negotiated with Jefferson for wage labor and ultimate emancipation if he returned to Virginia with his sister, likely for similar reasons.[9]

Even under the condition of slavery, their lives in Virginia might have been seen as more beneficial at the time.

Hemings was not a field laborer. Returning to Monticello meant having a well-maintained household to live and work in. It granted security, whereas wage labor in France—specifically that of a domestic worker—did not guarantee these things for her or her future children.

Hemings also had Jefferson’s reputation on her side. In France, Jefferson was considered an “apostle of liberty,” according to Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello. A major figurehead during the American Revolution and author of the Declaration of Independence, his reputation long preceded him in France; he even assisted in the writing of France’s own freedom document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

As the American minister to France, Jefferson placed himself in a vulnerable position, especially in light of France’s commitment to anti-slavery, continuing to operate as a slaveholder in Paris by bringing Hemings along to look after his daughter. When Hemings initially refused to return to Paris with him,[10] he was left with two options: free Hemings willingly or risk public scorn should she petition for her freedom. His revolutionary reputation would be shattered, and the United States of America as a whole would be cast as a hypocritical character to the rest of the world.

Her decision to act on Jefferson’s word alone perhaps also shows that he had an established emotional connection to Hemings, and that she possibly manipulated his affections to her benefit. Any woman could have Hemings’s role at Monticello, yet he wanted her, and this provided Hemings with even more leverage. [11]  There is also evidence that he wanted her for more emotional reasons, as her role at Monticello involved her in his daily life, within his private quarters. [12]  Seeing her was an expected part of Jefferson’s day and he would have to bend to her wishes to see that through.

So Hemings made her requests and had them granted through her careful manipulation of both her situation and Jefferson’s. If there was any fear of Hemings revealing herself to the French or Jefferson going back on his word upon return to the U.S., perhaps they played to each other’s advantages. In the end, Hemings got what she wanted, and so did Jefferson.

In her return to Virginia, Hemings took a wide perspective of the situation and acted out of necessity for her children, desiring their immediate security and eventual freedom—all things she gained for her children through her negotiations. She also demonstrated a unique ability to analyze her situation and move herself into a space that benefited her and her family, despite the systems of oppression she faced. Simply put, she did not return to Virginia for the sake of love, at least not love for Jefferson, and did so with shrewd judgement.

All of her children were indeed freed at the age of 21, but Jefferson never did set Hemings herself free. It was not until after his death that Jefferson’s heirs provided Hemings with her entitled freedom.

Hemings did not document her own life. And as a result, she has been cast in a variety of roles over time. She has been painted as Jefferson’s consensual partner, despite this being counterfactual. She has been completely dismissed by others hoping to maintain Jefferson’s legacy of liberty. And even with familial testimony that has been passed down and DNA evidence, she still leaves us curious to this day.

What we do know is that despite Hemings’s position as a victim of slavery and assault at the hands of Jefferson, Hemings was a woman of extraordinary agency who leveraged her conditions of oppression to make the best life possible for her family. She made a way, a space for herself, and her place in history cannot be erased.

So why have we not heard about her?

*Note: “Rape” here is technically an anachronistic term, given the lack of sexual agency allowed enslaved women by virtue of them being considered “property.” We use this term in an effort to recognize the experiences of enslaved women and properly establish the violence perpetuated by white men against black women.

Cover portrait by Barbara Kiwak.

[1] Bay, Mia. “In Search of Sally Hemings in the Post-DNA Era.” In Reviews in American History, 407-26. 4th ed. Vol. 34. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006.
[2] Kerber, Linda K.
[3] Bay, Mia.
[4] Spencer, Suzette . “Historical Memory, Romantic Narrative, and Sally Hemings .” In African American Review, 507-31. 3rd ed. Vol. 40. African American Review: St. Louis University , 2006.
[5] Spencer, Suzette . “Historical Memory, Romantic Narrative, and Sally Hemings .” In African American Review, 507-31. 3rd ed. Vol. 40. African American Review: St. Louis University , 2006.
[6] Kerber, Sherron, and Hughes.
[7] Bay, Mia.
[8] Bay, Mia.
[9] Bay, Mia.
[10] Kerber, Linda K., De Hart Jane Sherron, and Cornelia Hughes. Dayton.  “The Hemings-Jefferson Treaty: Paris, 1789.” In Women’s America: refocusing the past , 97-105. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
[11] Kerber, Linda K., De Hart Jane Sherron, and Cornelia Hughes. Dayton.  “The Hemings-Jefferson Treaty: Paris, 1789.” In Women’s America: refocusing the past , 97-105. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
[12] Kerber, Sherron and Hughes.


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