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Sally Hemings: They Called Her "Sarah"

Updated on September 15, 2017

Sally Hemings' Legacy

Sally Hemings was born to slave master and sea captain, John Wayles and his slave Elizabeth "Betty" Hemings. John Wayles died the year Sally was born. Sally's family then became the property of Thomas Jefferson. Sally's oldest son, Madison Hemmings, claimed that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally's children.

This was further argued by Eugene Abram Foster, who conducted a prominent DNA study that linked descendants of Thomas Jefferson to Sally Hemings.

The fact that her children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson is no longer really in dispute. It has been proven with DNA. Now, the question seems to be whether or not their sexual encounters were consensual for Sally. Were they in love? Or did Jefferson give her no choice?

Separate Portraits of Jefferson & Hemings

Source

Hemings' Children Fathered by Jefferson

Thanks to DNA technology, we now know that Jefferson and Hemings had at least 6 children together. This speaks to a long-term relationship. Therefore, we can surmise that theirs was much more than a fling: that they in fact did love each other and care for each other very much and for many years.

Husbands in denial? - An example of "mixed" children of slaves

The Color of Skin and Heritage

This painting shows a good example of the "typical" children of many slave women in Jefferson's time. While some children of slaves were nearly white, they would have still been considered black because of who their mother was. Some were even able to "pass" as white after escaping. It is as if no one wanted to admit the elephant in the room was a white slave owner, so everyone apparently just pretended their whole lives that both of the parents of these children were "black".

While some may want to deny Thomas Jefferson's heritage, it is my opinion that "mostly white" children of slaves was likely closer to the "norm" than not.

Moticello Oral History Project

Sally Hemings' Great Grandchildren

Sally Hemings' Great Grandchildren
Sally Hemings' Great Grandchildren

Monticello - Where Thomas met Sally

Her life with Mr. Jefferson began here, at his beloved home.

Monticello
Monticello

Evolving History

What makes history fun for me is that even though it is based on facts, it is constantly changing. Even eyewitness accounts can be proven false centuries later. These false accounts are not because the witness lied, but because their perception was limited to the knowledge available to them at the time. What a person sees and hears can only be explained with their personal understanding of the events. The more we uncover and discover about events, the more exciting they can sometimes get. A simple slave girl, a companion to his children, Thomas Jefferson's "Sarah" as she was called, was probably not thinking of her life as anything exceptional. Though she was pretty, and her life as a slave was very likely more fortunate than most, she was still not free, and therefore, not equal in the eyes of the country during her time. Her life would have been fairly routine, and were it not for the question of her descendants being also of our former president and forefather of our country's lineage, we would probably never have heard of her at all.

Yet, what we do, when we look into the life of this now extraordinary woman, as history has put her in the spotlight, is make her a sort of hero. She has become the voice of black women treated as property for generations - forced to bear children of rape and bring them up as more "property" for the perpetrator. On the other hand, it could be that she and Jefferson were truly enamored with each other too. In that case, she is the voice for secret romances that had to be kept hidden away and publicly denied for fear of shame to the "owners" and likely worse for their slave/love interest. Whichever the case, her story brings out both cases, and compels us to dig deeper into the secret world of sex and slavery in the early years of our country. The more time that passes, the less "taboo" the subject, the fewer folks around to be hurt by the truth, and the more we can decipher from the clues left in her wake, the more we want to know.

Was she truly the daughter of another affair between her mother and her own slave owner? If so, that slave owner was the father of Jefferson's wife, which would make Sally Hemings his own sister-in-law. Interesting!

Quick, what do you think of Sally Hemings?

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Jefferson in Paris - the Movie

Source

Jefferson in Paris

The movie "Jefferson in Paris" from 1995, shed a larger light on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings than ever before. The beginning of their affair in Paris and subsequent loving devotion to each other is portrayed quite convincingly. If accurate at all, it is nice to believe. I sincerely hope that was the case. I have been a fan of Jefferson since my teenage years. When I found out about this relationship, I was quite curious. I find it hard to believe he was ever cruel to her. She must have been a very loving person. He was depressed and needed her compassionate care. I only hope he was able to give her back what she gave him.

I imagine, as a slave, it must have been difficult for her to have a "special" relationship with her owner - and not suffer somewhat from her peers. That probably put her in quite a lonely position. So, in a way, the situation, likely isolating her, kept her closer to Jefferson - like a flood that feeds itself with it's own water, they fell deeper in love as they become more dependent on one another. Perhaps.

Sally's Companion

America's First Daughter: A Novel
America's First Daughter: A Novel

I read "America's First Daughter" in January, 2017. I was impressed by the writers' dedication to the facts, even though they took some liberties. The relationship between Patsy Jefferson and Sally Hemings is explored at length in the book. In many ways they were rivals, both vying for Jefferson's attention. Ultimately, though, they each had their own gifts to contribute. Without either one of them, I have no doubt Thomas Jefferson would not have been the icon we know so well.

 

Shout Out For Sally Hemings!

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      Colin323 3 years ago

      I learned something new and interesting today, thank you. Your module on the challenge of interpretating history was spot-on. The 'truth' is often swallowed by time and the biases of the period in question.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      i feel that thomas and sally, were probably in love, but being a slave would prohibit their relationship as far as being married. i do believe that thomas is the father of sally's, children. he was a normal man wasn't he?

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      Nancy Tate Hellams 5 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Very interesting, indeed. I have read some about Sally Hemings but enjoyed reading more.

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      reasonablerobby 5 years ago

      what a fascinating story