Sally Hemings, 1773-2018: Hemingses' Lives Matter


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  • Monticello, Courtesy of wikipedia
A major error in the historical narrative of this country's founders has been partly corrected at Monticello in Virginia.
The newly opened space at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s palatial mountaintop plantation, is presented as the living quarters of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who bore the founding father’s children.
The life of Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson, is an essential part of an honest recounting of the history of slavery and its importance in the early history of the United States. The two hundred year denial of her sexual relationship with Jefferson and her bearing of six children with him is historical witness to the unwillingness of the white majority to face up to the truth concerning this country's original sin. The reconstruction of Hemings's separate and unequal living quarters on the grounds and its inclusion in the tours of Monticello are a partial, far-too-late correction of the historical record.

I've spent a considerable amount of time in the years since I retired from teaching trying to correct the weaknesses in my own education. For instance, I finally read James Joyce's Ulysses a few years ago. I own that omission. The book was there all along, I knew its place in the literary canon since I was in high school, but I simply never bothered to pick it up. But I take less personal responsibility for the alarming gaps in my knowledge of the history of minorities in this country. The primary responsibility for my ignorance is the gap in the historical record created by historians who put on blinders when they wrote their many thousands of books on American history, which should be shelved in libraries in a section named, "History As Told By the Winners." The historical record has begun to be corrected over the past few decades. I'm trying to catch up as fast as I can.

A few years ago I read The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed. It is a history of Sally Hemings and her family before, during and after they were owned by Thomas Jefferson. The book shifts the usual focus of narratives about our country's founders, putting the Hemings family front and center and making Jefferson a secondary character who is discussed as he relates to the slave family.

Here's the short version of Sally Hemings's story: When Hemings was 16, in Paris with Jefferson to take care of his children, Jefferson impregnated her with the first of the six children they would have together. Jefferson denied his parentage and kept Sally and their children slaves at Monticello, only granting the children their freedom when they became adults.

For the longer version, I'm going to employ an unusual approach, starting from last Saturday and working backwards to Sally Hemings's birth.

• Saturday, June 16, 2018: An exhibit featuring the slave quarters in Monticello on their original site opened to the public, including Sally Hemings's quarters. It also includes a room with a history of the slaves at Monticello based on oral histories of their descendants. (Since the 1940s, previous to the recent reconstruction of the slave quarters, the space had housed a public bathroom.) Tours of Monticello, which previously made a cursory mention of slavery, now include a more comprehensive discussion of the lives of Jefferson's slaves.

After more than two centuries of denial, it is generally accepted by historians that Hemings's children were fathered by Jefferson during a relationship which lasted almost 40 years. However, some holdouts, especially a segment of the white descendants of Jefferson, firmly deny that Jefferson is the father.

• 1998: A DNA test of Hemings' descendants revealed genetic evidence indicating that Jefferson fathered her children. Many people, including some Jefferson scholars, refused to accept the evidence as proof, speculating that the father could have been Thomas Jefferson's brother, Randolph, whose DNA would have been similar to the president's.

• 1826-1998: Historians created a narrative about Jefferson which denied the possibility that he had sexual relations with Sally Hemings or fathered her children. They cited his writings, claiming that no man who wrote so eloquently about freedom and equality could possibly have had carnal relations with a slave. Like the medieval astronomers driven by religious dogma who created brilliant, byzantine mathematical constructs to prove that the Heavens revolve around the Earth rather than acknowledging the simpler mathematics showing the planets revolve around the sun, American historians, driven by patriotic dogma, constructed elaborate theories putting the paternity of Sally's children everywhere but Jefferson while the clearest evidence pointed to him as the father.

• 1873: Madison Hemmings, the third of Sally's four children who lived into adulthood, published a memoir filled with important information about his mother, his father, life at Monticello and his own experiences through the Civil War. This invaluable first-person document received little attention from historians because it stated that Jefferson was Madison's father, which, in the minds of the historians bent on preserving Jefferson's spotless reputation in the face of strong evidence to the contrary, rendered his entire narrative false.

• 1789: A 16 year old Sally Hemings was in Paris with the 46 year old Jefferson to help take care of his children by his wife, Martha, who died in 1782. Sally became pregnant by Jefferson while in Paris. Their sexual relations are described as rape by some, who say that since she was a slave and thirty years younger, any sex with her older master should be considered to be coerced. Others use a gentler description, saying she was fulfilling her duty to obey her master. There is evidence that the two had genuine affection for one another throughout their relationship.

At the time Jefferson was in Paris, slaves who petitioned the French government could be granted freedom from their masters. According to the story told by Madison, Sally threatened to request her freedom and remain in Paris with their child. Jefferson promised if she returned to the United States, he would grant her and their children"extraordinary privileges" and would free the children when they reached adulthood. Sally agreed, though she had no guarantee Jefferson would keep his word once they returned to Monticello. He did.

Sally's children were light skinned. One of the sons resembled Jefferson so closely that at a quick glance he could have been mistaken for his father. This is not surprising, as the children had seven-eighths European, one-eighth African ancestry — octoroons in the contemporary terminology. In Virginia at the time, this qualified them as being white. The "one drop of blood" rule to determine blackness came later in our history. Sally, who had three-quarters European, one-quarter African ancestry, was said to be, in one description, "mighty near white" with "straight hair down her back."

1774: Sally Hemings, a year old, was brought to Monticello along with her mother, brothers and sisters. As a young girl, she assisted and ran errands for Martha Jefferson, Thomas' wife. Martha died when Sally was nine.

• 1773: Sally Hemings is born, the child of Elizabeth Hemings, a slave, and John Wayles, Elizabeth's master. Wayles was also the father of Thomas Jefferson's wife Martha, making Martha and Sally half sisters, with the same father and different mothers. It also made Sally the aunt of Martha and Thomas' children. Elizabeth's father, Sally's grandfather, was also white.

Martha was born with the wealth and privilege of a white daughter of a wealthy land owner. Sally was born as the property of the same father, to be disposed with as he pleased. Though it is not part of the historical record, it is possible that Jefferson, who missed his wife deeply after her death, was drawn to the family resemblance in Sally to her half sister, his beloved Martha.

That is where Sally Hemings's story ends, or, I should say, begins. It deserves its place as one of the important narratives we use to understand the nature of this nation at its inception and the people who helped found it. Instead, the true story has been intentionally buried to white-wash the life of one of the country's founders and distort the complex nature of the history of slavery in America.


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