The woman who became Thomas Jefferson’s slave, then his rape victim, and even the mother of their illegitimate children.
In September of 1802, the Richmond Recorder published an article by James Callender which stated:
“It is well known that the man, whom it delighted the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally.”
To really get into this, the story of Sally Hemings begins with the life of her grandmother. Sometime in the mid-1700s she lived in West Africa but was rounded up with several other people in her village by slave-traders. The horrified little girl was violently forced onto a ship and transplanted from the Old World to the New World completely against her will. Along the way, many of those captives died, but she managed to survive the long trip from Africa to North America. After she arrived in the first colony the girl became a slave in America, and then a man named John Hemings visited the home of her master. As was customary at the time, Captain Hemings was given a meal, a room for the night, and a bed partner for the duration of his stay. It was the slave girl, and she was impregnated by him without any concern for her consent whatsoever. Following this, a daughter of theirs named Betty Hemings grew up on the tobacco plantation of a man named John Wayles. She bore six of his children. Their names were Robert, James, Thenia, Critta, Peter, and last but not least Sally.
Sally Hemings was born into slavery in Virginia in 1773, which was the year that Thomas Jefferson turned 30. She first arrived at his plantation as a toddler with her siblings and their biracial mother, Betty. They were part of Jefferson’s wife Martha’s inheritance from her recently deceased father, John Wayles. Since she was a slave, Betty had become the rape victim of her master, just as Sally would become with hers. This was all too common in an era with a xenophobic zeitgeist that centered around classism, leading to normalized racism and sexism. As part of this, a black woman like Sally Hemings had the least rights of anyone in the US at that time. Prior to the 20th century, there was a terribly disturbing dynamic between countless female slaves and their male masters here in America. Slave girls and women had no legal right to refuse any unwanted sexual advances whatsoever. Undoubtedly, the amount of physiological and psychological damage that has been done to females throughout history and prehistory is just inconceivable. The point is that Sally was a rape victim, just like her mother before her, and her mother’s mother before her. So, the vicious cycle of sexual abuse in their African-American lineage was well underway by the time that Sally was born as a third-generation slave.
In line with all of this, Sally Hemings was really the half-sister of Martha Jefferson, but she was thought of as being part of their property, not their family, even though they were related by blood. It’s not like people couldn’t tell either, I mean after all children typically resemble their parents even if only a little. Just as an aside, this has been posthumously proven through modern paternity tests that have been run on the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Regardless, the point is that back then in such an extremely perverse rape culture, Betty was no exception to this, and neither was Sally. Their European ancestry was just as obvious to everyone as their African ancestry, but that didn’t matter. The thing was that back then every mixed race person was considered to be black, no matter what. So even though Sally’s father and three of her grandparents were white, she was still considered to be black. Thus, Sally Hemings was born a slave. After all, the children of slaves were slaves unless they were freed, plain and simple. That’s the way thing were back then. Someone had to be of full European descent to be considered a white person, and therefore to have basic human rights. Again, this was just how things were done in America during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1782 when Sally was still a little girl, Martha Jefferson died. Then, in 1784, the widower Thomas Jefferson was appointed as the US Minister to France. He took a number of his slaves with him overseas, including Sally Hemings. Since slavery had been abolished in France by then Jefferson paid wages to Hemings while they were in Paris, so she was able to earn money for the first time in her life. The thing was that Sally resembled his late wife Martha so much that Thomas just couldn’t resist his carnal urges toward her. So, when she was only fifteen years old he impregnated her on foreign soil. However, Sallys’ first child with Thomas died soon after their return from Paris in 1789. Two years later, Thomas Jefferson became the third US president. Sally Hemings was in her late twenties when he took office in 1801. So, obviously, her life was different from other slaves in America. She had many privileges that they didn’t. For instance, most slaves only had a first name like Sally, but she had the last name Hemings as well. Plus, the fact that she even had a family was very uncommon. Unlike most slaves, Sally grew up with her actual mother and siblings. Also, most of the Hemings were very light-skinned, forming what amounted to a lower class dynasty in the Monticello mountaintop estate. After all, regardless of their illegitimacy, Sally’s children were the sons and daughters of the founding father who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, in the original draft, Jefferson included an abolitionist passage, but the Continental Congress rejected it, claiming that it was too controversial.
The thing is that even with all of Jefferson’s anti-slavery sentiments, he still owned people and agreed that they could be property. More to the point, all the special treatment in the world didn’t change the fact that Sally Hemings was a slave and a rape victim. The country didn’t see her as a member of society like Martha Jefferson had been, even though she was basically the first lady’s replacement. The story of Jefferson and Heming is truly disturbing. Long before Bill and Monica, there was Tom and Sally. The press even covered the political scandal in the papers. The 42nd president was nothing compared to the 3rd president, not by a long shot. What Sally went through is more or less unimaginable. Still, her victimization is similar to what countless other women have had to experience in the past and unfortunately will continue to experience in the future. This is why things like the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements are so important. It’s also why rape kit backlogging and many other things have to come to an end. Although Sally Hemings may have died in Charlottesville in 1835, her spirit still lives on in 2019. As such, she is dishonored every time a child is forced into slavery, or becomes part of the black market sex trafficking industry, or gets raped by some crazy stranger or worse yet a trusted family member. Slavery, sex trafficking, and rape are despicably dehumanizing crimes and unforgivable sins that no one should ever be part of. These illegal and immoral acts have to come to an end for the very sake of humanity itself. As part of this, we should ruminate on the trials and tribulations of women like Sally. Her life is an important part of black history, US history, and even world history. Let her not be forgotten.