What? Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved concubine, in the parlance of the day, was half-sister to his deceased wife Martha? What? Sally and Thomas’s children, legally slaves, were 1/8 African and 7/8 white? WHAT? At his death, all but five of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves – some of them, Sally’s great nephews and nieces – were sold at auction to pay off his debts?
I learned these mind bogglers and much more from Annette Gordon-Reed’s 2008 The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Gordon-Reed is a lawyer, legal scholar and historian who teaches at Harvard. The book is a meticulously researched history of the Hemings and Jefferson families and their torturous connections. Gordon-Reed adds invaluable insight as a woman and an African American.
For example, Gordon-Reed tells of the terror the enslaved at Monticello felt as Jefferson neared death. They feared the worst – being sold. She writes, “In January of 1827 [six months after Jefferson’s death], Peter Fossett, all of eleven years old, stood alone on an auction block and was sold away from his mother, father, brothers and sisters. Many of Fossett’s siblings and cousins, some as young as eight years old, suffered the same fate.”
The Hemingses of Monticello can teach us a lot in this moment in American history. Annette Gordon-Reed is one of the brilliant and brave writers who are passionate about revealing the true history of the black experience in the United States. This book, and others, primed the pump for the current surge for racial justice.
Other writers include Erica Armstrong Dunbar who wrote Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge that I reviewed last year, and Isabel Wilkinson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which opened my eyes to the horrors of Jim Crow.
As Bill and I walked up the gravel and boardwalk path to Jefferson’s home and plantation, Monticello, the trees in autumnal red, yellow, and orange hues, I thought a lot about what went on at the top of that mountain two hundred years ago. We have toured the house and grounds a couple of times, but we have hiked the trail up the mountain dozens of times over the years. It’s a beautiful four-mile loop. Jefferson always had good taste.
My son and family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, ten years ago. And when you are in Charlottesville, it’s hard to escape Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, from the University of Virginia, which he founded, to the Jefferson Theater, the Jefferson School and of course, Monticello.
The Hemingses of Monticello made me so mad at Jefferson. How big must the moral blinders be for a person to write “all men are created equal” and be a slave holder his whole life? To let your own children be slaves? Call it entitlement, willful blindness, white privilege on steroids.
Jefferson lived in his own little world in Monticello, away from the townsfolk. He thought of life with the Hemingses as being with family. He was deluding himself. Gordon-Reed writes, “He had held them as chattel, trying, in the case of the Hemingses, to soften a reality that could never be made soft. While he claimed to know and respect the quality of their hearts, he could never truly see them as human beings separate from him and his own needs, desires, and fears…What could have been in the hearts of any human beings living under the power of that system was inevitably complicated, inevitably tragic.”
Jefferson’s self-indulgent desires – lavish dinners and wines, extravagant building projects, failed business schemes – extended these tragic consequences beyond his death. He couldn’t afford to free his slaves after his death, as George Washington had done, because of years of accumulating debt. As Gordon Reed puts it, “Double entry bookkeeping was not for him, and, as a result, he never really grasped his extremely perilous financial condition … One suspects this was a case of not wanting to know.” (Italics mine.)
Another part of the Jefferson-Hemings story holds special resonance to me. Gordon – Reed writes, “Central to the Hemingses identity was their being of mixed race.” My grandsons are also of mixed race. Three of their grandparents are white. I am Chinese. You have to really look to find the Asian features in their faces.
Edin and Caleb
It must have been hard to see “black” features in Sally Hemings’ 1/8th-black children. Three of the four who grew to adulthood, Harriet, Beverly (male) and Eston, eventually lived, and identified, as whites. The other, Madison, identified as black. What they had in common was that each family kept alive their history as Jefferson’s descendants. Jefferson’s paternity was denied for two centuries by historians and Jefferson’s white heirs until DNA tests became available.
At Monticello, (and throughout the South!), slaves and masters looked alike, and for good reason. Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings were half-sisters. (Martha’s and Sally’s father owned Sally’s mother.) When one of Jefferson’s daughters, also called Martha, moved her family to Monticello due to marital difficulties, her children (Jefferson’s grandchildren) were about the same age as Thomas and Sally’s children. They looked like Jefferson and they looked like each other. Yet, these cousins (on both sides!) were separated by the vast gulf of slavery.
If you really think about it, isn’t it bizarre that your looks could determine the entire trajectory of your life? That you could be sold on the auction block, forced to work, to be beaten or raped by people who were legally empowered to do that? That after slavery was abolished, people continued to be denied jobs, personal freedom and sometimes, life, because of their appearance? That even today, someone’s hair and complexion can determine their health and wealth?
Because it is very clear to me that traits such as hair color and texture, complexion, eye shapes, lips, however someone looks, shift like desert sand in just a generation or two. I’ve seen it in my family within my lifetime.
I really thought DNA would kill the whole race question. DNA studies show that there is more variation within “racial groups” than between them. It proves once and for all that all men [and women] are created equal.
I am heartened that the groundswell of support for “Black Lives Matter” has grown into a sustained movement since George Floyd’s murder. The injustice runs much wider and deeper than current events. It’s evil four hundred years in the making. The video evidence of police abuses pricks everyone’s conscience. So do the stories of black people’s lives, including the one told in The Hemingses of Monticello.
Tell me: Do you have “mixed race” relatives?