Sally Hemings Takes Center Stage

tags: Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Sally Hemings

Professor Gordon-Reed is the author of “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” and “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.”

Sally Hemings takes center stage in Monticello on Saturday when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation opens an exhibit in a space where she is said to have lived for some time. Her story is told through the recollections of her son Madison Hemings, the third of four children she and Thomas Jefferson had who lived to adulthood. His memoir, published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873, gives vital information about the Hemings family genealogy, his mother’s life and the course of his own history.

As part of a major renovation of the plantation’s southern wing, visitors will for the first time see Sally Hemings depicted as a central figure in life on the mountain. It’s significant that the source of information about her will come from the words of an African-American man. Madison Hemings helps us define his mother’s life, and also the life of his famous father.

This is a remarkable turn of events. For centuries, historians denied Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. This exhibit has been a long time coming, but better late than never.

At the heart of Madison Hemings’s recollections is a dramatic moment in 1789 that occurred between his parents while they were abroad in France when Jefferson served as a diplomat. That’s when, according to Madison Hemings, his mother became “Mr. Jefferson’s concubine,” and became pregnant. Sally Hemings was happy in Paris, where she and her brother James had a chance for freedom. When Jefferson planned to return to the United States, she refused to leave. To persuade her, Jefferson promised the 16-year-old “extraordinary privileges” at Monticello if she complied. He also made a “solemn pledge” that any children she had would be freed when they became adults.

We can’t know whether Sally Hemings was serious about staying or bluffing. In prerevolutionary Paris, where Virginia’s laws did not automatically apply, she would have been able to sue for her freedom. Such petitions were regularly granted. In the end, she “implicitly relied” on Jefferson’s promises and returned home. The terms of this “treaty,” as Madison Hemings called it, were fulfilled. And his narrative explains why he and his three siblings, Beverley, Harriet and Eston, were able to live their adult lives in freedom almost 40 years before the formal end of slavery. ...

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