Author: Virginia Scharff

a professor of history and director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico
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Sally Hemings (1773–1835)

Sally Hemings was an enslaved house servant owned by Thomas Jefferson, who is believed to have fathered at least six of Hemings’s children. Born in 1773 at a Virginia plantation of John Wayles, Hemings became the property of Jefferson, whose wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, was likely Hemings’s half-sister. Described by Thomas Jefferson Randolph as being “light colored and decidedly goodlooking,” Hemings lived at Monticello and then, when Jefferson moved to Paris, France, at Eppington, an estate in Chesterfield County. In 1787, she accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Mary to Paris, and lived there as a servant in the Jefferson household until 1789. After her return to Monticello, Hemings bore six children, whom her son Madison Hemings later claimed to have been fathered by Jefferson. Rumors to that effect had already circulated when, in 1802, James Thomson Callender, a journalist and by then a political enemy of Jefferson, accused the president of keeping one of his slaves “as his concubine.” In an 1873 newspaper interview, Madison Hemings bluntly stated that Jefferson was his father, and the issue was revived a century later by the Jefferson biographer Fawn M. Brodie, becoming a social, political, and historical cause célèbre. Although many biographers initially doubted the possibility, many historians now agree that Jefferson probably fathered the Hemings children. Beginning in 2018, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, began treating it as a fact. After Jefferson’s death in 1826, Sally Hemings lived in Charlottesville with her sons Madison and Eston Hemings. She died in 1835.