The History of American Slavery

The Unsung Hemingses

Historians have long objectified Sally Hemings, but the Hemings family’s experiences at Monticello offer a unique glimpse into the lives of “privileged” slaves.


Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ryo Chijiiwa/Flickr Creative Commons.

This article supplements Episode 4 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit

 Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. Published by W.W. Norton & Company.

Sally Hemings is often treated as a figure of no historical significance—a mere object of malicious personal gossip. That shouldn’t surprise. Aside from forays into “history from the bottom up”—a perspective that has been given increased emphasis over the past 40 years—historical writing tends to favor the lives of individuals who spoke, acted, and had a direct hand in shaping whatever particular “moment” they lived in.

Hemings does not fit the bill on any of these accounts. She neither spoke publicly about her life nor engaged in any public acts that have been recorded, but she, her children, her mother, and other members of her family were dragged into the national spotlight in a way unprecedented for individual American slaves.

Others—journalists, Thomas Jefferson’s enemies—determined how she entered the spotlight; and they put her there with no real interest in her as a person. During the early part of the 19th century, Sally Hemings appeared in newspapers as “Dusky Sally,” “Yellow Sally,” and even “Mrs. Sarah Jefferson.” She was depicted in cartoons and lampooned in bawdy ballads—all alongside Jefferson.

Even though she was not in control of her life, Hemings must be seen as a figure of historical importance for a multiplicity of reasons, not the least of which is that her name and her life entered the public record during the run-up to a presidential election. Much has been written about Jefferson’s daughters and grandchildren, and they are treated as historically important simply because of their legal relationship to him, even though none of them ever figured in the politics and public life of his day. On the other hand, politically ambitious men with power used Hemings and her children as weapons against Jefferson while he was alive and in the decades immediately following his death. Her connection to him inspired the first novel published by a black American. It had resonance within black communities as ministers and black journalists in the early American Republic preached on and referred to Hemings’ family situation, one that would have seemed quite familiar to their predominately mixed-race audiences, most of whom were free precisely because their fathers or immediate forefathers had been white men. Finally, Hemings’ story affected members of Jefferson’s white family, notably his grandchildren, who, for the benefit of the historians who they knew would one day come calling, fashioned an image of life at Monticello designed in part to obscure her relevance. Even without direct agency in these matters, Sally Hemings has had an impact on the shaping of history. 

But we must also see the public spectacle surrounding Hemings and Jefferson as a defining episode in the lives of all the Hemingses. No contemporaneous evidence of what members of the family were thinking as the talk of the pair made its way through the country’s newspapers and communities has come to light. They surely knew that people were talking because others at Monticello—members of Jefferson’s white family, his friends, and at least one white Jefferson employee—are on record stating that the relationship was much talked about in Jefferson’s neighborhood. In every community, throughout history, slaves and servants have been privy to the innermost secrets, anxieties, strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures of the people they served. The Hemingses were no different.

There is much evidence that the Hemings-Jefferson connection meant a great deal to some members of her family. Madison Hemings, who at age 68 spoke of his life as the second son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, told part of his family’s story to an interviewer in 1873, setting down valuable information about the family’s origins, life at Monticello, and the lives of one branch of the family after emancipation.

Sally Hemings and her children have overshadowed the lives of other members of her family. How could they not, given their relationship to Thomas Jefferson, who himself looms like a colossus over the lives of all those who lived in his community? There is, however, far more to the Hemingses than “Sally and Tom.” There are many others who complete the picture of the family’s time in slavery and whose lives deserve to be woven into the tapestry of American history.

There is the story of John Hemings, the extremely talented carpenter and joiner whose work is still on display at Monticello. In John Hemings’ life we see the blend of slavery as a work system and as a system of personal relationships. Hemings, who helped Jefferson realize his vision for the look of Monticello, was also a surrogate father to Jefferson’s sons Beverley, Madison, and Eston.

Mary Hemings, the eldest of the first generation of Hemings siblings, exerted a remarkable influence upon the family. She was the first to maneuver her way out of slavery on the mountain. She was able to be a source of refuge, stability, and monetary support for her relatives who remained in bondage at Monticello—up to and beyond the time of the family’s dispersal in 1827, when Jefferson’s human property was sold after his death to pay his enormous debts.

Perhaps the most compelling figure in the family’s history was not Sally Hemings but her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whose experiences in life helped project her influence down the family line. Known as Betty, she was the matriarch of a family that over four generations numbered in the dozens. She was well suited to that role for many reasons, not the least of which is that she lived a very long time—72 years, well beyond the average life span of Virginians of her day, black or white. Also, she had many children—by one count, 14 of them, although only 12 have been positively identified as hers. Half of her children had a black father, half had a white father. Her grandchildren, some of whom were born while she was still bearing children, had black fathers and white fathers. The mixing continued into succeeding generations until some of her descendants decided to move totally away from their African origins, while others resolutely clung to them.

Like all enslaved parents, Elizabeth Hemings lived with the possibility that her family would be broken up by sale or gift. In fact, two of her adult children were sold—one to be united with her enslaved husband, who lived on a nearby plantation, the other to cohabit with a white merchant in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson freed two of her sons during her lifetime, and they left Monticello to live on their own. Another daughter was given as a wedding present to one of Jefferson’s sisters. For the most part, however, the Hemings family remained intact or within close proximity to one another for their entire lives. As a result each member had, in the person of Elizabeth Hemings, a mother/grandmother to be the repository of family lore and center of family attention.

Central to the Hemingses’ identity was their being of mixed race. Basing American slavery on race created a world where, put simply, it was better to be white than black. Being “in between” was meaningful as well, and the Hemingses’ interracial origins helped determine the course of the family’s history. The conventional wisdom that white slave owners sometimes valued more highly those slaves who most resembled white people was very much a part of life at Monticello, and the Hemingses benefited from it. (Although, at least one other enslaved family, the Grangers, who appear to have been of completely African origin, rivaled, if not exceeded, the Hemingses in the amount of trust Jefferson reposed in them.)

Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s eldest grandson, extolled the virtues of the Hemingses specifically. He said that while slaves on the plantation had their own theories for why the Hemingses were favored, the true reasons were their “superior intelligence, capacity and fidelity to trust.”

There is no cause to doubt that the Hemingses were indeed intelligent, but we should also consider what role their appearance and the knowledge of their genetic makeup may have played in his assessment of them. Randolph was likely influenced by the common view among whites that intermixture with white people eugenically improved black people, making the children from these unions smarter and more attractive than those of full African heritage. Under the circumstances, Randolph and his grandfather would have been inclined to see, credit, and encourage the talent they saw in men and women who looked more like themselves. That is one way prejudice works. Additionally, the Hemingses were not only part white; their white “parts” came from the master’s family.

In the society in which the Hemingses existed, family was all. This was as true for blacks as for whites. Importantly, during the Hemingses’ time at Monticello, family at its most elemental level was about blood ties.

The Hemingses’ situation vis-à-vis other slaves in their community was especially complicated because they were slaves in a household where they were genetically related both to one another and to those who held them in bondage. Because of that connection, the master of that household chose to treat them in a way that separated them from the rest of the enslaved population—for example, letting some of its members hire themselves out and keep their wages, exempting the women of the family from any hard labor, freeing only people from that family, giving certain of its males virtual free movement, and selecting them for special training as artisans. The master then chose a woman from the Hemings family, had children with her, and arranged for the freedom of that nuclear family.

Any enslaved member of that community who knew the history of Monticello would have known that the only route to freedom (one traveled only infrequently) was the possession of Wayles, Jefferson, or Hemings blood. No one else had a chance.

It is doubtful that other members of the community could have avoided seeing the Hemingses as different from themselves. It is also unlikely that members of the Hemings family could have avoided seeing themselves in something of a special light, even if the harsh reality of slavery might have served to check the tendency to see themselves as completely separate from other enslaved people.

Scholars have rightly cautioned against calling house slaves, as the Hemingses were, “privileged,” mainly because the term does not take into account the views of the enslaved. It just assumes that they would have thought spending their days around white people a desirable thing, that being “chosen” to be in proximity to white masters was a sign of good fortune. White slave owners may have thought so, but that was only their view.

The lives of the various members of the Hemings family, which must include the white men who had children with Hemings women, provide important windows through which to view the development of slavery and the concept of race in the Virginia of the 18th and 19th centuries. While there was much about the Hemingses that made them unique—Jefferson and Monticello—like other enslaved people, they were subject to all the insecurities and deprivations associated with that condition.

It seems especially appropriate to tell one part of the story of slavery through life at a place that holds such symbolic importance for many Americans—Monticello. For it is there that we can find the absolute best, and the absolute worst, that we have been as Americans.

Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright © 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.