The only surviving descriptions of Sally Hemings emphasized her light skin, long straight hair and good looks. She had four children (according to Jefferson’s records)–Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston–several of them were so light-skinned that they later passed for white. Jefferson never officially freed Hemings, but his daughter Martha Randolph probably gave her a kind of unofficial freedom that would allow her to remain in Virginia (at the time, laws required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). According to her son Madison Hemings, Sally lived with him and his brother Eston in Charlottesville until her death in 1835.
Rumors of a relationship between the widowed Jefferson (his wife Martha died in 1782, after a difficult delivery of the couple’s third daughter) and his attractive mulatto house slave circulated in Virginia society for years: Sally’s several children looked to be fathered by a white man, and some had features resembling Jefferson’s. In 1802, a less-than-reputable journalist named James Callender published an accusation of the affair in the Richmond Recorder. Jefferson had hired Callendar to libel John Adams in the 1800 presidential election, and Callender had expected a political appointment in the bargain; when he didn’t get it, he struck back at Jefferson in print, hoping to cause a scandal and hurt Jefferson’s chances for reelection (he was unsuccessful). Continue reading from History