Sally Hemings (1773-1835) was a slave woman of Thomas Jefferson, the third American president. She was a maid at Monticello, his estate. It seems she had at least one of his children, but probably as many as six.
This was going on while he was president. Although it happened after his wife died, marriage was out of the question in those days: he was a white European, she was one-fourth black African.
Why it seems likely:
- Her children believed it. They looked like him.
- Jefferson freed them. He freed only six of his 267 slaves. Four were her children.
- Jefferson was away from Monticello two-thirds of the time and yet was always at Monticello at just the right time when her children were conceived.
- DNA tests show that at least one of her sons was a blood relation of the Jeffersons, most likely (though not necessarily) of Thomas Jefferson himself.
Reasons for doubt:
- The story was first planted in newspapers by his political enemies when he was president.
- His white children said it was impossible.
- Jefferson made no clear reference to Sally Hemings as anything other than a slave. He never freed her.
Jefferson himself never said whether it was true or false.
A year after he died Sally Hemings was valued at $50 (40 crowns). A year later his daughter Martha gave Hemings “her time”. She was free in all but name.
We have no pictures of Sally Hemings.
- One slave said she was “mighty near white, very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”
- Jefferson’s grandson said she was “light coloured and decidedly good-looking.”
She may have looked like Jefferson’s wife: some say the two were half-sisters.
She was three-quarters white. Her mother’s mother came from Africa as a slave. It seems her other three grandparents were white. Her name comes from her mother’s father, an English sea captain named Hemings.
She looked after Jefferson’s two daughters, Mary and Martha. This brought her overseas when Jefferson was in France.
She was in France with Jefferson from 1787 to 1789, from about age 14 to 16. She learned French, the harpsichord and probably needlework. Some say this was when it all started.
In France she was free: the law did not allow Jefferson to keep slaves. She became a paid servant, as did her brother, who became a good French cook. They both came back to America with Jefferson.
- 1790: Tom, boy – not in Jefferson’s records!
- 1795: Harriet, girl – died at two
- 1796: Edy, girl – died as a baby
- 1798: Beverly, boy
- 1801: Harriet, girl
- 1805: Madison, boy
- 1808: Eston, boy
Jefferson was president from 1801 to 1809.
In 1998 DNA tests were done on Tom’s and Eston’s descendants. Tom is not a blood relation of the Jeffersons (even though he looked like one), but Eston is.
Jefferson freed her last four children, so Madison, Harriet and Beverly are probably his too. All but Madison moved far away and passed into white society.
We do not know if she could write. “The Diary of Sally Hemings” has yet to be discovered…