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Sally Hemings: About

Sally Hemings


Who is Sally Hemings?

Sally Hemings (her given name was probably Sarah) was born in 1773; she was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, and her father was allegedly John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She came into Jefferson’s household as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774, and as a child probably served as a nurse to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Mary (Maria). In 1787, Jefferson was serving as American minister to France when he sent for his daughter to join him, and 14-year-old Sally accompanied eight-year-old Mary to Paris, where she attended both Mary and Mary’s elder sister, Martha (Patsy). Sally returned with the family to their Virginia home, Monticello, in 1789, and seems to have performed the duties of a household servant and lady’s maid.

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

From the Collection

Link to Hemingses of Monticello by Gordon-reed in the catalog
Link to Four Hundred Souls by Ibram X. Kendi in the catalog
Link to The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Fleming in the catalog
Link to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings by Gordon-Reed in the catalog
Link to The Jefferson Lies by Barton in the catalog

Link to African American History Resource Guide Series Homepage