Sally Hemings, a controversial Black woman


Mulberry Row, Monticello
Date: 
Wed, 1773-04-28

*The birth of Sally Hemings in 1773 is celebrated on this date. She was a Black domestic chambermaid. She was also the mistress to and mother of (some) of the children of president Thomas Jefferson.

Born a slave in Shadwell, Albemarle County, Virginia Hemings’ given name was Sarah, she was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law. She became Thomas Jefferson's property as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774 and came with her mother to Monticello by 1776. As a child she was most likely a "nurse" to Jefferson's daughter Mary (slave girls from the age of six or eight were child minders and assistants to head nurses on southern plantations.) Hemings and Mary Jefferson were living at the home of Mary's aunt and uncle in 1787, when Jefferson's long-expressed desire to have his daughter join him in France was carried out. Fourteen-year-old Sally and eight-year-old Mary crossed the Atlantic Ocean to London that summer.

Jefferson had wanted someone who had had smallpox or been inoculated against it accompany his daughter to France; soon Hemings was inoculated by the famous Dr. Robert Sutton. While in Paris, with training in needlework and the care of clothing as a lady's maid to Jefferson's daughters; she was occasionally paid a monthly wage of about two dollars. When booking lodging for the return to America, Jefferson asked that Hemings berth be "convenient to that of my daughters." After the family's return to Virginia in 1789, she remained at Monticello, with the duties of a household servant and lady's maid (Jefferson still referred to her as "Maria's maid" in 1799).

Her son Madison remembered that one of her duties was "to take care of [Jefferson's] chamber and wardrobe, look after us children, and do light work such as sewing." There are only two known descriptions of Hemings. The slave Isaac Jefferson remembered that she was "mighty near white, very handsome, long straight hair down her back." Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall recalled Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph describing her as "light colored and decidedly good looking." Hemings may have lived in the stone workman's house (now called the "Weaver's Cottage") from 1790 to 1792, when she like her sister Critta might have moved to one of the new 12'x14' log cabins farther down Mulberry Row.

After the completion of the south buildings, she apparently lived in one of the "servant's rooms" under the south terrace (Thomas J. Randolph pointed it out many years later). Thomas Jefferson never officially freed Hemings. It seems most likely that Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph gave Sally "her time," a form of unofficial freedom that would enable her to remain in Virginia (the laws at that time required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). Madison Hemings reported that his mother lived in Charlottesville with him and his brother Eston until her death in 1835.

Reference:
Clara Fisher of Washington says she is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)