Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States (1801-1809), was born on a large Virginia estate run on slave labor. His marriage to the wealthy young widow Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772 more than doubled his property in land and slaves. In his public life, Jefferson made statements denouncing blacks as biologically inferior and claiming that a biracial American society was impossible. Despite these facts, there is much evidence to suggest–if not prove conclusively–that Jefferson had a longstanding relationship with a slave named Sally Hemings, and that the two had at least one and perhaps as many as six children together.
Who Was Sally Hemings?
Sally Hemings (her given name was probably Sarah) was born in 1773; she was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, and her father was allegedly John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She came into Jefferson’s household as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774, and as a child probably served as a nurse to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Mary (Maria). In 1787, Jefferson was serving as American minister to France when he sent for his daughter to join him, and 14-year-old Sally accompanied eight-year-old Mary to Paris, where she attended both Mary and Mary’s elder sister, Martha (Patsy). Sally returned with the family to their Virginia home, Monticello, in 1789, and seems to have performed the duties of a household servant and lady’s maid.
The only surviving descriptions of Sally Hemings emphasized her light skin, long straight hair and good looks. She had four children (according to Jefferson’s records)–Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston–several of them were so light-skinned that they later passed for white. Jefferson never officially freed Hemings, but his daughter Martha Randolph probably gave her a kind of unofficial freedom that would allow her to remain in Virginia (at the time, laws required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). According to her son Madison Hemings, Sally lived with him and his brother Eston in Charlottesville until her death in 1835.
Rumors of a Relationship
Rumors of a relationship between the widowed Jefferson (his wife Martha died in 1782, after a difficult delivery of the couple’s third daughter) and his attractive mulatto house slave circulated in Virginia society for years: Sally’s several children looked to be fathered by a white man, and some had features resembling Jefferson’s. In 1802, a less-than-reputable journalist named James Callender published an accusation of the affair in the Richmond Recorder. Jefferson had hired Callendar to libel John Adams in the 1800 presidential election, and Callender had expected a political appointment in the bargain; when he didn’t get it, he struck back at Jefferson in print, hoping to cause a scandal and hurt Jefferson’s chances for reelection (he was unsuccessful).
The supposed “Tom and Sally” liaison hovered in the background for much of the 19th century, threatening Jefferson’s heralded reputation as one of the most idealistic of the founding fathers. In 1873, Sally’s son Madison (born in 1805) gave an interview to an Ohio newspaper claiming that Jefferson was his father as well as the father of the rest of Sally’s children. Israel Jefferson, another former slave from Monticello, verified this claim. In 1894, James Parton’s biography of Jefferson argued the other side of the debate, repeating a long-running story within the Jefferson and Randolph families (Jefferson’s mother was a Randolph) that Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr had admitted that he himself was the father of all or most of Sally Hemings’ children.
In the second half of the 20th century, the historian Winthrop Jordan added new fuel to the fire, arguing in a 1968 book that Sally Hemings became pregnant only when Jefferson was in residence at Monticello. This fact was significant, as he was away fully two-thirds of the time. Jordan’s work sparked a new, more critical phase of Jefferson scholarship in which sought to reconcile Jefferson’s reputation as a principled lover of democracy with his admitted racism and the negative views he expressed about African Americans (common to wealthy Virginia planters of the time).
In November 1998, new biological evidence surfaced, in the form of a DNA analysis of samples from Field Jefferson, a living descendant of Jefferson’s paternal uncle, and from Eston Hemings (born in 1808). The analysis showed a perfect match between Y-chromosomes–a match with less than one in a thousand chance of being random coincidence. The same study compared DNA between the Hemings line and descendants of Peter Carr’s family, revealing no match. Though the study established probability and not certainty (though several of Jefferson’s male relatives certainly shared that male Y-chromosome, none of them were present at Monticello nine months before each time Sally gave birth), it lent new legitimacy to Madison Hemings’ long-ago claims that Jefferson fathered Madison and his siblings.
Where Things Stand Now
In January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation accepted the conclusion, supported by DNA evidence, that Jefferson and Sally Hemings had at least one and probably six offspring between 1790 and 1808. Though most historians now agree that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship, debate continues over the duration of that relationship and, especially, over its nature. Admirers of Jefferson are inclined to see his relationship with Hemings as a romantic love affair, despite his public statements about race. Those who doubt the sterling nature of Jefferson’s character, however, cast things in a much more negative light, seeing him as one more predatory white slave owner and his relationship with Hemings as proof of the hypocrisy behind his eloquent statements about freedom and equality.
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White or Black? The children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings wrestle with racial identity
Imagine that you were a child of Thomas Jefferson – author of the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s third president, a giant in American history – and Sally Hemings, the slave who gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children.
Do you claim your heritage? Do you hide it? How will that affect your life and the lives of your children?
Annette Gordon-Reed, the historian and law professor at Harvard and Radcliff, explored that dilemma in the third annual James Madison Lecture at the Wisconsin State Historical Society on Oct. 11. She brought into focus the choices African-Americans have had to make in deciding whether to “pass” – to be viewed as white even though they are bi-racial.
Hemings’ children were all freed from slavery after Jefferson’s death, the result of promise she extracted from him when they were in Paris in the late 1780s and she could have walked to her own freedom there.
Jefferson and Hemings’ son, Eston Hemings Jefferson, brings that dilemma home to Madison. This is where he and his wife and their three children moved in 1852, using Jefferson as his last name and becoming part of the white community in this emerging city.
“Passing for white is a complicated thing,” Gordon-Reed told the standing-room only crowd in the Historical Society Auditorium. “Do you choose for your parents or for your children? Passing is always a poignant story.”
Gordon-Reed is the historian whose worked changed the national consensus around the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. Her 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, shattered decades of wide acceptance of denials from Jefferson’s white descendants that he had fathered children with Hemings.
Her subsequent book, The Hemings of Monticello: An American Family (2008) won the Pulitzer Prize for History. She is working on the second volume of that and will be spending time in Madison exploring the life and family of Eston Hemings Jefferson.
Part of her work on the next book is tracing what happened to the four children of Jefferson and Hemings that survived childhood. Esten was the youngest of them and one of three who chose to live in the white community. The other chose to stay in the black community.
Madison Hemings, who remained in the black community, and his descendants did OK over the generations, she said. They did have the advantage of being descendants of a president, after all. But Esten and his brother and sister became part of the white community and did significantly better over time. It’s a fascinating look at the advantages those defined as white could claim in American society.
Still, the three of Sally Hemings’ children who chose to live as white people lost connection with the rest of the family, Gordon-Reed said.
“Esten had to leave a world behind to gain the respect he had in Madison and to give his children a future,” she said.
Gordon-Reed’s work not only illuminates the complexities of history and of the life of a towering figure in American history, but also brings a focus on the individuals who are part of that history.
“I wanted to make people feel something for the Hemings family and respect them,” she said.
Woman, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings, turns 100 this July 4th
OAKLAND, California -- It's a celebration a century in the making, but a story that goes back even farther.
She is turning 100 years old this Independence Day. And if that wasn't remarkable enough,her family history might amaze you even more.
Ms. Williams is a descendant of Sally Hemings, one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves with whom he had several children. She is the great-great granddaughter of Sally's older brother, Peter Hemings, a slave who served as Jefferson's cook and brewer.
It was only in recent years that Ms. Williams officially learned of her family's connection to the famous forefather. She has since traveled to Jefferson's Monticello Plantation in Virginia, where more than 400 enslaved men, women and children worked and lived, to meet with other descendants of Monticello's enslaved community.
"The last time I went there was a big reunion, and I had never seen so many people at a reunion," Ms. Williams said in an interview with Pulitzer prize-winning historian, Annette Gordon Reed, that will air during Monticello's virtual Independence Day celebration Saturday.
"There were people of every color, shape, complexion, and there was camaraderie and warmth and something pleasant," she recalled. "And it was almost spiritual because we didn't know each other and yet everybody felt close, both whites and Blacks. I hadn't seen that before."
The claim that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings was for generations considered controversial. It was only in recent history, and in large part because of DNA testing, that descendants of Jefferson and Hemings were formally and officially recognized. An exhibit about Sally Hemings opened at Monticello in 2018.
Reached by phone as she prepared to celebrate her centennial birthday, Ms. Williams said she and her cousins had always heard stories from relatives about descending from Monticello's African-American community. She said that one woman in every generation of her family was supposed to be named Sally after Sally Hemings, and that her mother's name was Sally.
Ms. Williams said she will be celebrating her 100th birthday with her family at home in Oakland.
A semiretired caregiver who grew up in Ohio.
I’ve always known the family story, my entire life. I don’t want to misquote my father, but he said something like, “This is something we know, but people will never believe you.” In history class, we were talking about Thomas Jefferson, and I said, “I’m related to him.” The reaction was laughter, and therefore embarrassment.
The first time I visited Monticello, I had this sense of excitement. There were these high ceilings, all the treasures he had displayed. Then someone asked, “Didn’t Thomas Jefferson have some children with slaves?” The guide said, “Absolutely not. It’s just rumor.” I thought, “Shame on you.” I wanted to turn around and leave.
Over the years, I did return. I went for the sleepover in the slave cabins. Anyone who participates in something like that wants this “out of the world” experience, like your ancestors might whisper something to you. I wanted that, so badly. Maybe too much. I didn’t feel this great connection to my ancestors that I wanted to feel.
But then I got to participate in an archaeological dig at Monticello. We were trekking through the woods in an area that is off limits to visitors. One of the archaeologists pointed up the hill to an area where Elizabeth Hemings’s house was. Standing there in the woods with two of my distant cousins who also descended from Elizabeth Hemings, to me, was an experience. We all looked at each other and thought, “If she could see us here today.”
For the descendant community, it gets a little old: “Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings.” Other slave descendants have richer stories. But she is the biggest draw because she is synonymous with Thomas Jefferson, almost. She was part of this family that had its own story of privilege. They were still slaves, but they were treated differently than other slaves.
If I could ask Thomas Jefferson anything, I’d ask, “Did you have feelings for Sally?” Because he left nothing behind. This man wrote everything down. Everything. He knew that people would be looking back at him. He wanted that. But there was nothing about her. It hurts. As descendants, and because of his character, we want to believe that it wasn’t just a slave-master rape situation. I don’t know why we want to believe that. But we do. We just do.
For everyone who will attend the opening, they have to have a sense of pride, or they wouldn’t be there. But I have people in my family who don’t want to have anything to do with this. One of my dad’s sisters did not want to talk about the Jefferson thing at all. Aunt Alice was a proud black woman and she felt, “Why would I want to embrace that legacy? He owned her.” She couldn’t get past that. But I look at it as, “Sally Hemings accomplished something amazing for her children, which was freedom.”
The idea that they’re finally saying it, loudly and clearly, that Thomas Jefferson is the father of Sally Hemings’s children, I never thought it would happen.
The Unsung Hemingses
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ryo Chijiiwa/Flickr Creative Commons.
This article supplements Episode 4 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Academy.
Sally Hemings is often treated as a figure of no historical significance—a mere object of malicious personal gossip. That shouldn’t surprise. Aside from forays into “history from the bottom up”—a perspective that has been given increased emphasis over the past 40 years—historical writing tends to favor the lives of individuals who spoke, acted, and had a direct hand in shaping whatever particular “moment” they lived in.
Hemings does not fit the bill on any of these accounts. She neither spoke publicly about her life nor engaged in any public acts that have been recorded, but she, her children, her mother, and other members of her family were dragged into the national spotlight in a way unprecedented for individual American slaves.
Others—journalists, Thomas Jefferson’s enemies—determined how she entered the spotlight and they put her there with no real interest in her as a person. During the early part of the 19 th century, Sally Hemings appeared in newspapers as “Dusky Sally,” “Yellow Sally,” and even “Mrs. Sarah Jefferson.” She was depicted in cartoons and lampooned in bawdy ballads—all alongside Jefferson.
Even though she was not in control of her life, Hemings must be seen as a figure of historical importance for a multiplicity of reasons, not the least of which is that her name and her life entered the public record during the run-up to a presidential election. Much has been written about Jefferson’s daughters and grandchildren, and they are treated as historically important simply because of their legal relationship to him, even though none of them ever figured in the politics and public life of his day. On the other hand, politically ambitious men with power used Hemings and her children as weapons against Jefferson while he was alive and in the decades immediately following his death. Her connection to him inspired the first novel published by a black American. It had resonance within black communities as ministers and black journalists in the early American Republic preached on and referred to Hemings’ family situation, one that would have seemed quite familiar to their predominately mixed-race audiences, most of whom were free precisely because their fathers or immediate forefathers had been white men. Finally, Hemings’ story affected members of Jefferson’s white family, notably his grandchildren, who, for the benefit of the historians who they knew would one day come calling, fashioned an image of life at Monticello designed in part to obscure her relevance. Even without direct agency in these matters, Sally Hemings has had an impact on the shaping of history.
But we must also see the public spectacle surrounding Hemings and Jefferson as a defining episode in the lives of all the Hemingses. No contemporaneous evidence of what members of the family were thinking as the talk of the pair made its way through the country’s newspapers and communities has come to light. They surely knew that people were talking because others at Monticello—members of Jefferson’s white family, his friends, and at least one white Jefferson employee—are on record stating that the relationship was much talked about in Jefferson’s neighborhood. In every community, throughout history, slaves and servants have been privy to the innermost secrets, anxieties, strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures of the people they served. The Hemingses were no different.
There is much evidence that the Hemings-Jefferson connection meant a great deal to some members of her family. Madison Hemings, who at age 68 spoke of his life as the second son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, told part of his family’s story to an interviewer in 1873, setting down valuable information about the family’s origins, life at Monticello, and the lives of one branch of the family after emancipation.
Sally Hemings and her children have overshadowed the lives of other members of her family. How could they not, given their relationship to Thomas Jefferson, who himself looms like a colossus over the lives of all those who lived in his community? There is, however, far more to the Hemingses than “Sally and Tom.” There are many others who complete the picture of the family’s time in slavery and whose lives deserve to be woven into the tapestry of American history.
There is the story of John Hemings, the extremely talented carpenter and joiner whose work is still on display at Monticello. In John Hemings’ life we see the blend of slavery as a work system and as a system of personal relationships. Hemings, who helped Jefferson realize his vision for the look of Monticello, was also a surrogate father to Jefferson’s sons Beverley, Madison, and Eston.
Mary Hemings, the eldest of the first generation of Hemings siblings, exerted a remarkable influence upon the family. She was the first to maneuver her way out of slavery on the mountain. She was able to be a source of refuge, stability, and monetary support for her relatives who remained in bondage at Monticello—up to and beyond the time of the family’s dispersal in 1827, when Jefferson’s human property was sold after his death to pay his enormous debts.
Perhaps the most compelling figure in the family’s history was not Sally Hemings but her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whose experiences in life helped project her influence down the family line. Known as Betty, she was the matriarch of a family that over four generations numbered in the dozens. She was well suited to that role for many reasons, not the least of which is that she lived a very long time—72 years, well beyond the average life span of Virginians of her day, black or white. Also, she had many children—by one count, 14 of them, although only 12 have been positively identified as hers. Half of her children had a black father, half had a white father. Her grandchildren, some of whom were born while she was still bearing children, had black fathers and white fathers. The mixing continued into succeeding generations until some of her descendants decided to move totally away from their African origins, while others resolutely clung to them.
Like all enslaved parents, Elizabeth Hemings lived with the possibility that her family would be broken up by sale or gift. In fact, two of her adult children were sold—one to be united with her enslaved husband, who lived on a nearby plantation, the other to cohabit with a white merchant in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson freed two of her sons during her lifetime, and they left Monticello to live on their own. Another daughter was given as a wedding present to one of Jefferson’s sisters. For the most part, however, the Hemings family remained intact or within close proximity to one another for their entire lives. As a result each member had, in the person of Elizabeth Hemings, a mother/grandmother to be the repository of family lore and center of family attention.
Central to the Hemingses’ identity was their being of mixed race. Basing American slavery on race created a world where, put simply, it was better to be white than black. Being “in between” was meaningful as well, and the Hemingses’ interracial origins helped determine the course of the family’s history. The conventional wisdom that white slave owners sometimes valued more highly those slaves who most resembled white people was very much a part of life at Monticello, and the Hemingses benefited from it. (Although, at least one other enslaved family, the Grangers, who appear to have been of completely African origin, rivaled, if not exceeded, the Hemingses in the amount of trust Jefferson reposed in them.)
Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s eldest grandson, extolled the virtues of the Hemingses specifically. He said that while slaves on the plantation had their own theories for why the Hemingses were favored, the true reasons were their “superior intelligence, capacity and fidelity to trust.”
There is no cause to doubt that the Hemingses were indeed intelligent, but we should also consider what role their appearance and the knowledge of their genetic makeup may have played in his assessment of them. Randolph was likely influenced by the common view among whites that intermixture with white people eugenically improved black people, making the children from these unions smarter and more attractive than those of full African heritage. Under the circumstances, Randolph and his grandfather would have been inclined to see, credit, and encourage the talent they saw in men and women who looked more like themselves. That is one way prejudice works. Additionally, the Hemingses were not only part white their white “parts” came from the master’s family.
In the society in which the Hemingses existed, family was all. This was as true for blacks as for whites. Importantly, during the Hemingses’ time at Monticello, family at its most elemental level was about blood ties.
The Hemingses’ situation vis-à-vis other slaves in their community was especially complicated because they were slaves in a household where they were genetically related both to one another and to those who held them in bondage. Because of that connection, the master of that household chose to treat them in a way that separated them from the rest of the enslaved population—for example, letting some of its members hire themselves out and keep their wages, exempting the women of the family from any hard labor, freeing only people from that family, giving certain of its males virtual free movement, and selecting them for special training as artisans. The master then chose a woman from the Hemings family, had children with her, and arranged for the freedom of that nuclear family.
Any enslaved member of that community who knew the history of Monticello would have known that the only route to freedom (one traveled only infrequently) was the possession of Wayles, Jefferson, or Hemings blood. No one else had a chance.
It is doubtful that other members of the community could have avoided seeing the Hemingses as different from themselves. It is also unlikely that members of the Hemings family could have avoided seeing themselves in something of a special light, even if the harsh reality of slavery might have served to check the tendency to see themselves as completely separate from other enslaved people.
Scholars have rightly cautioned against calling house slaves, as the Hemingses were, “privileged,” mainly because the term does not take into account the views of the enslaved. It just assumes that they would have thought spending their days around white people a desirable thing, that being “chosen” to be in proximity to white masters was a sign of good fortune. White slave owners may have thought so, but that was only their view.
The lives of the various members of the Hemings family, which must include the white men who had children with Hemings women, provide important windows through which to view the development of slavery and the concept of race in the Virginia of the 18 th and 19 th centuries. While there was much about the Hemingses that made them unique—Jefferson and Monticello—like other enslaved people, they were subject to all the insecurities and deprivations associated with that condition.
It seems especially appropriate to tell one part of the story of slavery through life at a place that holds such symbolic importance for many Americans—Monticello. For it is there that we can find the absolute best, and the absolute worst, that we have been as Americans.
Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright © 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Thomas Jefferson's descendants unite over a troubled past
At the expansive Monticello Estate in Virginia, there sits a simple room with white walls, brick floors and a single silhouette that represents the life of Sally Hemings, one of Thomas Jefferson's more than 600 slaves.
Presidential estates have long struggled with how to present the founding era exceptionalism along with the full history. The latest installation at Monticello, the Sally Hemming's exhibit, gives the most personal look yet at a shameful chapter in American history. The exhibit takes a definitive stance on her relationship with Thomas Jefferson and the children they had together. A story once hidden now has the spotlight.
Lucian Truscott is Jefferson's sixth-great-grandson. Shannon Lanier is also Jefferson's sixth-great-grandson &mdash but from Hemings' side.
As a Jefferson descendant, Truscott said he was given run of Monticello, even jumping on his ancestor's bed. Lanier's story is a little different.
"Because we were studying the presidents in second grade, I stood up and I proudly said, 'Thomas Jefferson is my great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.' And the teachers said, 'Sit down and stop telling lies,'" Lanier recalled.
In 1998, Truscott met his Hemings cousins for the first time on the Oprah Winfrey show.
"Oprah turns to me and she says, 'Well, Lucian, now you met Hemings cousins. What are you gonna do now? And I went, 'Oh my God. What am I going to do?' You know? And so I invited them to come to Monticello for the family reunion," Truscott said.
But there were some people who didn't want that to happen.
"It also could mean that their possible icon &mdash that Jefferson was a rapist. And they didn't want that to be their ancestor. They didn't want that to be their hero," Lanier said.
The Monticello Association &mdash which is separate from the Monticello Estate &mdash voted not to allow the Hemings family to be buried with other Jefferson descendants in the family graveyard. Truscott disagrees and believes that they should be allowed there.
"That graveyard is for Jefferson descendants and they're Jefferson descendants," Truscott said.
"I grew up at a time when you didn't hear the word slave here. You could go on 10 tours over 10 different years and never hear the word slave &hellip now the tours you take here are complete tours."
Today they make note of things like where Sally and her brother lived and parts of the home that were built by slaves.
"That was never talked about &hellip you were never taught when you were a kid &hellip that slaves built Monticello, the Capitol, the White House &hellip this country would not exist without slaves and Sally Hemings was one of the founding mothers of this country. I like to think about Thomas Jefferson getting up on the day that he wrote the Declaration of Independence back in 1776. Who made his breakfast? Who came in and shook his shoulder and said, 'Mr. Jefferson, it's time to get up and write the Declaration of Independence.' Slaves did," Truscott said.
"And it's so true, because, you know, 50 years ago when you come to Monticello, they act like Jefferson built this place by himself and there were no slaves here," added Lanier. "And they're now putting context to the content and telling that full story of what happened here. And I think that makes history richer."
He feels that the legacy Sally left her children was allowing them to know who they are.
"They didn't have to be silenced. That they were able to tell their story," Lanier said.
"That's one of the great things in my life, is getting to know the rest of my family &hellip it's made my life and the life of my children so much richer," Truscott said.
- with Martha Eppes , born 10 April 1712 - Henrico Co., VA, deceased 5 November 1748 - Charles City Co., VA aged 36 years old
- Martha Patsy Wayles 1748-1782 Married 20 November 1766, Charles City, VA, toBathhurst Skelton 1744-1768
Martha Patsy Wayles 1748-1782Married in January 1772, The Forest, Charles City Co., Virginia, toThomas Jefferson, President 1743-1826
- with Tabitha Cocke , born 25 September 1724 - Fluvanna Co., VA, deceased
- Elizabeth WaylesMarried in 1769 toFrancis Eppes 1746..1747-1808
- with X Brown
- Betty Brown 1759-1831/ Relationship with? ?
'As the 6th great grandson of TJ & #SallyHemings, I'm only 1 example of how #slavery has not only separated the country but also made us more in common & connected than some may think!' he continued.
While his attire was similar to Jefferson's in the portraits, LaNier chose not to wear a wig.
'I didn't want to become Jefferson,' LaNier told the Smithsonian Magazine.
LaNier, who is a TV host in Houston, shared the images of him dressed in similar attire as Jefferson on Instagram
While his attire was similar to Jefferson's in the portraits, LaNier chose not to wear a wig. 'I didn't want to become Jefferson,' LaNier told the Smithsonian Magazine
'As the 6th great grandson of TJ & #SallyHemings, I'm only 1 example of how #slavery has not only separated the country but also made us more in common & connected than some may think!' LaNier (pictured) continued
'My ancestor had his dreams—and now it's up to all of us living in America today to make sure no one is excluded from the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'
LaNier, who co-authored the book Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family, added: 'He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it. He owned people. And now I’m here because of it.'
Sally Hemings was the mother of six of Thomas Jefferson's children while she was enslaved at the Monticello estate.
Ellen Wayles Hemings, pictured, (1856-1940) was the granddaughter of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. She married her next door neighbour Andrew Jackson Roberts in 1878
Harriet Hemings, pictured as a young woman (left) and later in life (right), was the granddaughter of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson
According to her son Madison Hemings, her father was Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law, John Wayles.
Hemings became Jefferson's property as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774 and came with her mother Elizabeth Hemings in 1776.
Hemings worked as a household servant and was never a free woman, but she was allowed to leave Monticello following Jefferson's death to live with sons Madison and Eston Hemings in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Frederick Madison Roberts was the son of Andrew Jackson Roberts and Ellen Wayles Hemings - the grand-daughter of Sally Hemings. He was the first African American elected to the California State Assembly in 1918
Emma Byrd Young, third left, pictured with her her husband George and their 10 children at some time in 1915, was the great-grand daughter of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson- whose family left Virginia in 1827 and settled in Southern Ohio
Jacqueline Pettiford and her family, who are descendants of Madison Hemings, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson's son, standing outside of the Monticello estate in Charlottesville, Virginia
The photo series also included descendants of Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton posing as their relatives.
Gardner's photo series started about 15 years ago when he began tracking down the descendants of famous Europeans like Napoleon and Oliver Cromwell for the purpose of asking them to pose as their famous relatives.
He then turned his sights to the US, telling the Smithsonian Magazine: 'For all its travails, America is the most brilliant idea.'
SALLY HEMINGS: THE SLAVE WHO GAVE BIRTH TO SIX OF JEFFERSON'S CHILDREN
Sally Hemings (1773-1835) was a slave at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Sally Hemings was the mother of six of Thomas Jefferson's children while she was enslaved at the Monticello estate.
The six children were: Harriet (born 1795 died in infancy) Beverly (born 1798) an unnamed daughter (born 1799 died in infancy) Harriet (born 1801) Madison (born 1805) and Eston (born 1808).
According to her son Madison Hemings, her father was Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law, John Wayles.
There are no know portraits of Sally Hemings, and one of the few accounts of her by an enslaved blacksmith named Isaac Granger Jefferson said that Sally Hemings was 'mighty near white. very handsome, long straight hair down her back.'
While this has been subject to debate, a 1998 DNA study genetically linked Hemings' male descendants with male descendants of the Jefferson family.
Sally Hemings became Thomas Jefferson's property as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774 and came with her mother Elizabeth Hemings in 1776.
As a child, she was probably a nursemaid to Jefferson's daughter Maria, as enslaved girls from the age of six or eight were childminders and assistants to head nurses on southern plantations.
One of the few accounts of Sally Hemings was given by an enslaved blacksmith named Isaac Granger Jefferson
Sally served as an attendant to Maria Jefferson, as well as Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's wife, accompanying them on various trips to Paris.
After her return to Virginia in 1789, Sally Hemings remained at Monticello and worked as a household servant.
Sally's son Madison recalled that one of her duties was 'to take care of [Jefferson's] chamber and wardrobe, look after us children, and do light work such as sewing.'
While Hemings was never technically a free woman, she was allowed to leave Monticello following Thomas Jefferson's death to live with sons Madison and Eston Hemings in Charlottesville.
Power of believing
Once ignored, Madison Hemings' words about his mother and family have been used to tell their story at Monticello. While Sally's name is well-known, little is known about who she was as a person, and no pictures exist.
"They're finally saying she's a person and she was here. She existed, and she got together with what's his name," Gray said.
Although Getting Word had been gathering oral histories for five years by the time the DNA results came about, changes in the narrative at Monticello didn't begin until then.
"When the DNA came out, they were forced to start discussing it," she said.
In this photo provided by The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Bernard Hairston, center, of Charlottesville, Va., looks at an exhibit about Thomas Jefferson's slaves and their descendants during the opening of the South Wing at Monticello, Jefferson's estate in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday, June 16, 2018.
(Photo: Steve Ruark/The Thomas Jefferson Foundation via AP)
At first, there were a few acknowledgments of the presence of slaves at Monticello added to the narrative on tours, but the Hemings story remained mostly taboo until now.
"We were told had there not been a Getting Word project, a good number of those changes wouldn't have happened," Gray said.
Not only do the stories from families and the accompanying research add to the history of Monticello, but it also adds to the history of America, she said.
The exhibit for Sally has been placed within a portion of her quarters which had been uncovered recently. A dress form outfitted with a hand-sewn dress and shadows are used to represent Sally, leaving some like Patti Harding's granddaughter Jacey Harding feeling spooked.
"It was like she was in there with us," Patti agreed.
"I loved it," said Tony Medley, Patti's brother. "I didn't want to leave, really . I could sit there all day."
Tony and Patti's sister, Rosemary Ghoston, liked seeing Madison's words incorporated. For Austin, who attended with her daughter Denise Lisath and daughter-in-law Karen Austin, the Hemings exhibit brought forth a pride for her ancestors and all those who had been enslaved there.
"That topped it off for me in that she was recognized, her quarters, remembering her as a human being . Our trip to Monticello, to me, was the most important and most exciting out of the three times (I've gone)," Austin said.
Before the West was Won: The World He Found
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Columbus: God Over Gold
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Watch the video: Sally Hemings 2000. Documentary (December 2021).
- Martha Patsy Wayles 1748-1782 Married 20 November 1766, Charles City, VA, toBathhurst Skelton 1744-1768