- NAME: Sally Hemings
- BIRTH DATE: c. 1773
- DEATH DATE: 1835
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Shadwell, Albermarle County, Virginia
- PLACE OF DEATH: Charlottesville, Virginia
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Sally Hemings was an enslaved African-American woman who’s believed to have had several children with one-time U.S. president Thomas Jefferson.
A look at the private life of Thomas Jefferson, and the reputed sexual relationship he had with one of his own slaves, Sally Hemings.
Thomas Jefferson had a 37 year relationship and fathered several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.
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Little concrete information is known about Sally Hemings’ life at Monticello. She was a seamstress, and was responsible for Jefferson's room and wardrobe. The only known descriptions of Hemings come from another slave at Monticello, Isaac Jefferson, who stated that she was "mighty near white ... very handsome, long straight hair down her back," and Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall,
who once recalled Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph's description of Hemings: "[She was] light colored and decidedly good looking."
The rumored relationship between Jefferson and his beautiful young servant began to circulate during the 1790s in both Virginia and Washington, D.C. The talk only intensified in 1802, when the journalist James Callender (once a Jefferson ally) published the accusation, which had been circling as gossip in Virginia for several years. Callender was the first to mention Sally Hemings by name, as well as the first child, "Tom," allegedly born to Hemings and Jefferson. The fact that Hemings's light-skinned children bore a strong resemblance to Jefferson only increased the speculation.
Of the seven children born to Sally Hemings over the next two decades, only four (five, according to Woodson's descendants) lived to adulthood. Her second child, Harriet, died after only two years. Beverly (a son), born in 1798, left Monticello in 1822 and moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived as a white man. A second, unnamed daughter died in infancy. Harriet, born in 1801 and named for the first lost daughter, moved away near the same time as Beverly and also entered white society. Hemings's youngest children, Madison and Eston (born in 1805 and 1808 respectively) were freed by order of Jefferson’s will in 1826. While Madison Hemings lived as a black man (first in Virginia and later in Ohio) all his life, his brother Eston changed his name to Jefferson and began living as a white man in Wisconsin at the age of 44.
Jefferson, in fact, freed all of Hemings's children; ironically, however, he never freed Hemings herself. After Jefferson's death, she remained at Monticello for two years, after which Martha Jefferson (acting on her father's wishes) gave her "her time," a form of unofficial freedom that allowed her to remain in Virginia (freed slaves were required by Virginia law to leave the state after a year). Before his death, Jefferson had also arranged for Madison and Eston Hemings to be allowed to stay in Virginia. After leaving Monticello, Sally Hemings moved with her two youngest sons to nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, where she died in 1835.
A haze of controversy surrounded the possible Jefferson-Hemings liaison long after the two principal figures had passed away. In the latter half of the 19th century, contradictory evidence surfaced: In a memoir published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873, Madison Hemings claimed to be Jefferson's child. Just a year later, an account was published claiming that Jefferson's nephew, Peter Carr, had confessed to Jefferson's daughter Martha that he had been the father of all or most of Sally's children.
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