Sally Hemings


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enduring icon in America's imagination since abolition and Thomas Jefferson's alleged lover for thirty-eight years. Sally Hemings was emancipated in 1828, and her mystique subjected her to legend of the magnitude that posthumously hounds Elvis Presley. Hemings sightings proliferated in antislavery periodicals, and she was fictionalized in fugitive slave William Wells Brown's novel Clotel, or The President's Daughter (1853).

Hemings was half sister to Jefferson's wife, Martha, born to Martha's father, John Wayles, and Betty, a half-white slave. An inheritance from Wayles, the quadroon Hemings was house slave at Monticello. Published documentation of the Hemings-Jefferson affair began with a 1 September 1802 exposé by James Thomson Callender in Richmond's Recorder.

Biographers who dispute the relationship, including Dumas Malone and Virginius Dabney, oppose historian Fawn Brodie and novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud (Sally Hemings, 1979), who authenticate it. Virtually dismissed have been oral histories of descendants of Thomas Woodson, Hemings's oldest child; testimony recalled from Hemings herself; African Methodist Episcopal records; and ex-slaves’ stories. This forces a confrontation on the relevance and reliability of oral traditions. The dispute emblematizes the diminished value and half-hearted evaluation of dictated, collective, and nonsecular sources in African American literature.

As did two of her children, Hemings could have passed as white. Yet names that the public imposed upon her—“Black Sal,” “Dusky Sally,” “African Venus”—denoted darkness exclusively, and they denigrated mulattas who threatened white racial purity. In retaliation, abolitionists such as William Wells Brown manipulated Hemings to debunk the rhetoric of unadulterated whiteness and to argue that the Republic only masqueraded as egalitarian. Hemings inspired a satirical song, “Jefferson's Daughter,” in Brown's Antislavery Harp (1848) and a symbolic, sympathetic reference in Iola Leroy (1892), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Reconstruction romance. Her figure asserts the hypocrisy of Jefferson's libertarian politics.

Minnie Shumate Woodson, “Researching to Document the Oral History of the Thomas Woodson Family: Dismantling the Sable Curtain,” Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society 6 (Spring 1985): 3–12.Paul Finkelman, “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (Apr. 1994): 193–228.Shannon Lanier, Jefferson's Children, 2000.Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, 2008.Clarence Earl Walker, Mongrel Nation: The American Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, 2009.

Barbara McCaskill

Subjects: United States History — Literature.

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