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Remembering Sally Hemings on Martin Luther King Day

A part of the Thomas Jefferson story that most people don’t know or have forgotten

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Photo by Joanna Kosinska / Unsplash

I can’t recall exactly the context of my mother’s revelation. I was maybe 11 or 12, so the year was maybe 1965 or 1966. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a national celebrity.

My mother explained that “colored people” who weren’t entirely “African black” were the product of interracial mixing that mostly occurred in the antebellum South, and sometimes because of an interracial marriage.

It was quite a revelation. Previously I had believed that “colored people” or “Negroes” naturally came in a variety of skin tones – just as some white people are swarthy and darkhaired, and others are fair and redheaded. I never had imagined that Blacks and whites had sex and produced offspring. I had never heard the word “mulatto.”

The subject of miscegenation, or interracial mixing, has always been taboo – especially in the southern colonies where it was most prevalent. Fawn M. Brodie writes in her biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, “To discuss such miscegenation ... violated one of the most dominant of all southern taboos. Mary Boykin Chesnut represented the exception to the taboo when ... she wrote with ironic precision in her celebrated Diary from Dixie: ‘God forgive us but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an iniquity. Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and concubines; and the mulattoes [mixed-race] one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.’”

The phrase “in every family” indicates clearly that it was common for white slaveowners to have sexual relationships with their “concubines,” their female slaves.

Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, was born in October 1748 to Martha Eppes Wayles and John Wayles in Charles City County, Virginia. She was a 24-year-old widow when she married her third cousin, Thomas Jefferson, on January 1, 1772.

Martha’s father, John, was a prosperous landowner, attorney, and slave trader. According to Wikipedia: “John Wayles ... is historically best known as the father-in-law of Thomas Jefferson. ... Wayles married three times, with these marriages producing 11 children; only five of them lived to adulthood. Wayles’ continual rapes of slave Betty Hemings resulted in six additional children, including Sally Hemings, who was the mother of six children by Thomas Jefferson and half-sister of Martha Jefferson.”

Martha and Thomas Jefferson acquired slaves as part of her dowry, and later from the estate of John Wayles, who died in 1773. Thomas Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves over the course of his lifetime. He was the second largest slave owner in Albemarle County, Virginia.

Betty Hemings and her 10 mixed-race children were among the slaves the Jeffersons acquired from John Wayles. Betty Hemings herself was bi-racial, the daughter of Susannah, an African woman, and a white sea captain named John Hemings. So, Betty’s six youngest children, fathered by John Wayles, were three-quarters white. The youngest was an infant, Sally Hemings.

The Hemings family members worked as domestic servants, chefs, and artisans at Monticello. Most likely they were granted these favored positions among slaves because Betty Hemings’ children, fathered by John Wayles, were half-siblings of Martha Wayles Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife.

Martha and Thomas Jefferson had six children together; only two survived to adulthood. Martha died in September 1782, at age 33, four months after the birth of their last child.

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson the widower traveled with his young daughter Patsy and two slaves to Paris, where he joined Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to negotiate international treaties and agreements. One of the slaves was James Hemings, Sally’s older brother, who was trained in French cuisine.

In 1787, at age 44, Jefferson sent for his 9-year-old daughter, Polly. She was accompanied by a young slave from Monticello, 14-year-old Sally Hemings.

Sally Hemings lived with Jefferson in Paris for 26 months. According to Wikipedia, “During this time, under circumstances that are not well understood, she and Jefferson began having intimate relations.” Abigail Adams wrote that Sally Hemings bore a strong resemblance to her half-sister, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha. (Remember: Sally Hemings was three-quarters white.)

For about 200 years, some historians challenged the idea that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with Sally Hemings. Until finally —

Wikipedia reports: “Multiple lines of evidence, including modern DNA analyses, indicate that Jefferson impregnated Hemings over the span of many years, and historians now broadly agree that he was the father of her six children ...

“Following renewed historical analysis in the late 20th century and a 1998-1999 genealogical DNA test ... the Monticello Foundation asserted that Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings and likely her other five children as well. In 2018, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation of Monticello announced its plans to have an exhibit titled Life of Sally Hemings, and affirmed that it was treating as a settled issue that Jefferson was the father of her known children. The exhibit opened in June 2018.”

That controversy is largely settled, but now an even greater one ensues: Did Thomas Jefferson rape Sally Hemings?

In the Daily News (7/7/2017), Shaun King writes “Thomas Jefferson was a horrible man who owned 600 human beings, raped them, and literally worked them to death. To romanticize Sally Hemings as a mistress to Thomas Jefferson is to romanticize the horrible institution of slavery.

“Mistress implies consent. Thomas Jefferson owned Sally Hemings. She was his legal property. Thomas and Martha Jefferson owned Sally from the time she was an infant. She could not leave. She was not free. Both Martha and Thomas Jefferson refused to free Sally Hemings their entire lives.

“Sally Hemings was just 14 years old when [44-year-old] Thomas Jefferson began using her for sex. Hemings was just 16 years old when she had her first child by him. This continued, unabated, for decades. It’s not love. It’s not romantic. It’s sexual assault and sexual abuse.”

Kentucky law has three degrees of rape, and four degrees of sexual abuse. Rape in the 3rd degree occurs when: “A person is in a position of authority or special trust ... and has intercourse with a minor under the age of 18 whom that person met through the position of authority or trust.”

Sexual abuse in the 1st degree occurs when: “Being a person in a position of authority or position of special trust ... he or she, regardless of his or her age, subjects a minor younger than 18, with whom he or she comes into contact as a result of that position, to sexual contact.”

Wikipedia refers quite plainly to “Wayles’ continual rapes of slave Betty Hemings.” Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is described less plainly: “Whether this should be described as rape remains a matter of controversy.”

Of course, the laws and culture were quite different in 18th century Virginia. Nevertheless, the fact remains that 14-year-old Sally Hemings was not in a position to refuse the sexual advances of her 44-year-old master and owner, Thomas Jefferson.

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