Having spent the past five years immersed in research on the Jefferson and Hemings families for two historical novels I wrote, I was thrilled to learn that Sally Hemings’s room at Monticello will be reopened. I’d grown tired of hearing her described within the confines of two roles: “Jefferson’s concubine,” as her son called her, and “slave.”
Other words could and should be applied to Hemings.
When Hemings was 14, she was assigned to accompany Thomas Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria, to France, where Jefferson was serving as American envoy. According to Hemings’s son Madison Hemings, at 16, Sally was pregnant with Jefferson’s child, a son who didn’t live long. When Jefferson prepared to return to the United States, Hemings and her brother James made bold plans to stay behind in slave-free France as full citizens of that country. This was no fool’s fancy. Hemings was intelligent — she quickly mastered the French language and, as a skilled seamstress, would have been readily employed. Her brother was equally employable, having been trained by Jefferson in the art of “French cookery.”
But in addition to being intelligent and bold, Hemings was savvy; when Jefferson argued for the Hemingses’ return to the United States, Hemings negotiated freedom for her children and “extraordinary privileges” for herself, as her son described them. If she returned with Jefferson, their children would be set free once they reached 21, and Hemings would never again do the work of the other enslaved women at Monticello. Around the plantation, Hemings was known to black and white alike as “dashing Sally.” She was described by others as “very handsome,” “decidedly good-looking,” “intelligent,” “very special,” “extraordinary.” She must also be described as confident to assume that she could hold Jefferson to a promise for more than 21 years.
Hemings might have remained free in France with her brother. Instead, she agreed to return with Jefferson, where for every enslaved woman the concept of consent could never be. Why? Perhaps she believed, as Hemings’s great-granddaughter did, that “Jefferson loved her very dearly.” Perhaps there was some real feeling between the pair. But acknowledging the truth of Earl E. Thorpe’s statement that “a central tragedy of the slave-white relationship was that neither side could love or hate in anything like fullness of dimension,” I have to wonder whether there were other reasons.
Hemings also had a loved and loving daughter, sister, aunt and cousin. We know she chose to return to Monticello with Jefferson, and we also know that, once there, she leveraged her position into something that allowed her relatives advantages that other enslaved people didn’t have. In addition to freeing Hemings’s brother James, as he had promised to do in France, Jefferson granted requests for purchase or sale to five of Hemings’s brothers and sisters, uniting their families. Hemings’s brothers were granted freedom of movement seldom given to the enslaved and were sometimes paid for work or given spending money. Several were taught to read and write. At least one of her nephews was allowed to “run away.” Hemings’s mother was retired to a cabin of her own that was 10 times larger than the ordinary slave cabin. Archaeologists have found remnants of glass windows and a set of English china in that cabin, unusual items to find in the cabin of an enslaved woman.
Perhaps 16-year-old Sally Hemings was simply outmatched in a debate with a persuasive, powerful, 46-year-old man. Or perhaps she saw a chance to improve life for her family. Perhaps she just missed her family. We’ll never know what she thought or felt.
But opening up the room where she lived at Monticello will force us to acknowledge her as a person who did think and feel, who lived her own extraordinary life and left her mark on our history beyond the role she’s thus far been assigned, as merely a footnote to a scandal.