African-American slave; believed to have been the mistress of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States. Born in 1773 in Virginia, Hemings was the youngest of six children born to Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, a slave of African and European descent; her probable given name was Sarah. Sally Hemings’ father was allegedly her mother’s owner, John Wayles, a white lawyer and slave trader of English descent who had emigrated to Virginia. As Wayles was also the father of Martha Wayles (Skelton) Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Hemings and Martha Jefferson were believed to have been half-sisters.
After John Wayles’ death, Hemings, along with her mother and siblings, moved to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, as part of Martha Jefferson’s inheritance. Hemings arrived at Monticello when she was about three years old. As a child and young teenager, Hemings performed the duties of a household servant. After Martha Jefferson’s death in 1782, Hemings became a companion for one of Jefferson’s younger daughters, Mary.
Jefferson traveled to Paris in 1784 to serve as the American minister to France. He took his eldest daughter, also named Martha, with him, while his two younger daughters, Mary and Lucy, stayed with their relatives, as did Hemings. After Lucy Jefferson died of whooping cough, Jefferson called Mary to Paris in the summer of 1787. The 14-year-old Hemings came with her. Hemings spent the next two years living with the Jeffersons in Paris along with her brother, James, who served as Jefferson’s personal servant. There is strong evidence to suggest that during this time, Jefferson and Hemings began a sexual relationship.
While Hemings was entitled to her freedom under French law, and for a time reportedly even considered staying in France after Jefferson’s departure, she ended up returning to Virginia in 1789. According to one of her youngest sons, Madison Hemings (who published his memoirs in 1873), Jefferson convinced his mother to return to America by promising her privileged status in his household and pledging to free her children when they reached the age of 21. Shortly after Hemings arrived at Monticello, she gave birth to her first child. (The fate of this child is uncertain. Madison Hemings stated that it lived only a short time, but the descendants of a man named Thomas Woodson claim that Woodson was the first child born to Jefferson and Hemings, and that he left Monticello as a young boy after rumors of his parents’ relationship began to spread.)
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 came 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 recalled Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph describing her as “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’ 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’ 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’ 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 in with her two youngest sons in nearby Charlottesville, 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 nineteenth 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. Jefferson’s direct descendants, Thomas Jefferson Randolph and Ellen Randolph Coolidge, stood by the conclusion that either Peter or Samuel Carr (both Jefferson’s nephews) had fathered Hemings’ children.
The Jefferson-Hemings debate was renewed in the 1970s with the publication of the historian Fawn McKay Brodie’s biography of Jefferson, which accepted the story of the relationship as true, as well as a bestselling fictionalized account of Hemings’ life written by the novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud. In 1997, another historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which stated that historians had underestimated the amount of evidence supporting the truth of the relationship.
In November 1998, dramatic new scientific evidence became available through the analysis of the DNA of male descendants of Hemings, Jefferson, Samuel and Peter Carr, and Woodson. After comparing the Y-chromosome component of the DNA of five descendants of Jefferson’s paternal uncle, Field Jefferson, with that of a descendant of another of Hemings’ sons, Eston (born 1808), Dr. Eugene Foster of the University of Virginia found an exact match of certain portions of the DNA (the odds of a perfect match in a random sample are less than one in a thousand). The study also found no match between the Hemings and Carr DNA, and showed that Thomas Woodson’s father was not a Jefferson. In January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation accepted the conclusion, supported by Foster’s DNA evidence, that Jefferson and Hemings were sexual partners, and that they had between one and six children together between 1790 and 1808.