Died At Age: 62
Also Known As: Sarah Sally Hemings
Born in: Charles City County, Virginia
Famous as: Thomas Jefferson’s Slave
father: John Wayles
mother: Betty Hemings
children: Beverly Hemings, Eston Hemings, Harriet Hemings, Madison Hemings
Died on: 1835
place of death: Charlottesville, Virginia
U.S. State: Virginia
Ancestry: British Americans
Who was Sally Hemings?
Sarah "Sally" Hemings was a mixed-race enslaved woman who was owned by Thomas Jefferson, former president and one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. According to most historians, Jefferson fathered all her seven children. The historians also speculate that they had a relationship that lasted for years. Four of their children ultimately made it to adulthood and each of them was granted freedom by Jefferson. The daughter of an enslaved biracial woman and her master, Hemings spent her early life in various other plantations in Virginia before she was moved to Jefferson’s home, Monticello, while she was still a child. In 1787, she travelled with Mary Jefferson—Thomas Jefferson’s daughter—to France where she grew rather close to the widowed statesman. Most historians generally agree that it was during this period that Jefferson established a sexual relationship with Hemings. She would accompany him back to the US and would remain enslaved until his death. After Jefferson freed her children, she spent the last nine years of her life with her two younger sons who built a house in Charlottesville, Virginia. She witnessed her grandchild being born in that house. While the parentage of her children had been a much-debated issue for a long time, a 1998 DNA study concluded that there is a match between the Jefferson male line and a descendant of Hemings' last son, Eston Hemings.
Childhood & Early Life
Born around 1773 in a plantation in Charles City County, Virginia Colony, Sally Hemings was the daughter of a biracial enslaved woman named Betty Hemings and her master John Wayles. Married and widowed three successive times, Wayles took Betty as his concubine. They had six children together, the youngest of whom was Sally Hemings.
Sally did not become well-acquainted with her step-siblings, except for Martha Wayles, Jefferson’s future wife. Betty Hemings’ children were three-quarters Europeans in ancestry and very fair skinned in appearance. However, according to the Virginia slave law, children who were birthed by enslaved women were considered slaves themselves under the principle of partus sequitur ventrem: the slave status of a child followed that of his or her mother. Hence, despite having their master as their father, Sally and all her siblings were considered slaves.
Jefferson married Martha in 1772, and after John Wayles passed away in the following year, the couple inherited his massive property of 11,000 acres as well as the 135 slaves, among whom were the Hemings family members.
Sally was 25 years younger than Martha and virtually grew up in Monticello. She and her family were put on the top of slave hierarchy. They never had to work in the fields and were exclusively trained to do housework. Some of them were artisans while the others were domestic servants.
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Life in Paris
Martha died in 1782. Two years later, Sally accompanied Mary (Polly), the nine-year-old daughter of Jefferson, to Paris as he was serving as the American envoy to France at the time. Initially, he wanted the old nurse who took care of his daughter to accompany her. But as she was sick, Sally was sent in her place.
She was in France for about 26 months. The country had abolished slavery following the Revolution in 1789. Jefferson was obligated to pay wages to Sally and others. He gave her the equivalent of $2 per month. Alongside other members of the household, she started learning French. Jefferson purchased her several expensive dresses, which suggest that she often accompanied Mary to social gatherings.
According to contemporary French law, Sally and other slaves could have petitioned for their freedom and they would have been allowed to live in France as free men and women. Her son, Madison Hemings, would later write in his memoir that it was in Paris that Jefferson and Hemings began a sexual relationship.
Soon, at 16 years of age, she became pregnant with their first child. She eventually decided to return to America with him, on the condition that her children would be free once they became adults (at 21). She also probably came back because of her mother with whom she shared a deep bond.
Return to the US
Sally and her brother James returned to the US in 1789 along with the Jefferson family. A widower, Jefferson followed the norm of the time and land, as previously demonstrated by his father-in-law, and had a long-term relationship with Hemings. One historian, Joshua D. Rothman, wrote that it was not unusual for Jefferson to have a relationship with an enslaved woman. White gentlemen were just expected to maintain a certain amount of discretion.
According to Madison, Sally’s first child passed away soon after the group came back from Paris. The Jefferson records reveal that Sally gave birth to six children after her return to America. They were Harriet Hemings (I) (October 5, 1795 – December 7, 1797), Beverley Hemings (April 1, 1798 – after 1873), unnamed daughter (born in 1799 and died in infancy), Harriet Hemings (II) (May 22, 1801 – after 1863), Madison (January 19, 1805 – 1877), and Eston Hemings (May 21, 1808 – 1856).
Jefferson kept a farm book in which he recorded every slave birth occurring in his plantation. The fact that none of Hemings’ children’s fathers was mentioned in the book further proves the theory that Jefferson indeed was the father of all of Hemings’ children.
Hemings worked exclusively inside the house. She served as a nursemaid-companion, lady's maid, chambermaid, and seamstress. While she could speak and understand at least two languages, English and French, it is unknown whether she was literate. In various writings, she has been described as very fair, with “Straight hair down her back” and as “light colored and decidedly good looking”.
Hemings never got married. While, being a slave, she could not enter into a marital union recognised under Virginia law, she could have taken a common-law husband, as many other slaves had at Monticello. Her children were always close to her. As Madison revealed in his writing, he and his siblings were allowed to be inside the “great house” and only had to perform light work such as running errands.
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At the age of 14, all of Hemings’ children were provided with due training. Harriet was taught spinning and weaving while her brothers trained under the skilled carpenter at the plantation. The boys also received violin lessons as Jefferson himself was a renowned violin player.
Among her four surviving children, Beverley ran away from the plantation in 1822, and no attempt was made to bring him back. Harriet, then 21, did the same as well. Furthermore, she was given $50 by overseer Edmund Bacon, who, in his posthumously published memoir, stated that people speculated that Jefferson freed her because she was his daughter. According to Madison, the siblings were later introduced to the white society in Washington, D.C. and eventually married well.
In his will, Jefferson formally freed five slaves, all of whom were members of the Hemings family. Madison and Eston were among them. Sally was freed after Jefferson’s death, by his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph.
Later Years & Death
Despite inheriting a great amount wealth when he was young, Jefferson incurred a lot of debts throughout his life and by the time he died, he was nearly bankrupt as all of his properties, including the slaves, were sold to pay off the debtors.
Hemings survived Jefferson by ten years and spent the last years of her life in a house that her son built. She also witnessed the birth of her grandson in that house. She died in 1835.
In the subsequent decades following the deaths of Jefferson and Hemings, a controversy involving the parentage of her children began to emerge. While people during Jefferson’s lifetime speculated that Hemings’ children were indeed fathered by him, his eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, stated in the 1850s that the father of Hemings’ children was the late Pete Carr, a nephew of Jefferson.
Most historians believed this claim to be true for the next 150 years. However, in 1998, a DNA test was conducted on the Y-chromosome of direct male-line descendants of Eston Hemings, and the results of which, along with other related test results, helped deduce that Thomas Jefferson was indeed the biological father of Eston Hemings. The historian consensus has drastically changed since the report was published, with most believing its findings.
In Popular Culture
In the 1995 film ‘Jefferson in Paris’, Hemings was portrayed by English actress Thandie Newton opposite Nick Nolte’s Jefferson.
The 2012 opera ‘Tom and Sally in Paris’ narrates the story of their relationship during the French Revolution.