Sally Hemings and Me

How I uncovered the story of the woman who was missing from childhood history books.


I first became interested in President Thomas Jefferson and his famous mountaintop home, Monticello, in third grade, when I read a series of biographies about prominent Americans. The series was just about what one would expect for texts pitched to elementary-school children: cheery and uncomplicated versions of great American lives designed to plant positive feelings about the country in youngsters. Tough questions about the interior lives of the black residents who lived behind closed doors were left for a later date—or not at all.

Jefferson was by far the most fascinating and compelling of the historical figures I read about. To be a slave owner and write the Declaration of Independence! "What was that about?" I wondered. I cannot recall the name of that Jefferson biography, but I do remember that it was disturbing to me as a child because the author decided to tell Jefferson's life story using an enslaved boy as a foil for young Tom. Where young white Tom was bright, curious, energetic and eager to learn all he could about the world, the black enslaved boy was the very opposite: lazy, incurious, perpetually playful and resentful of Tom's desire to learn and grow.

Even then, I realized a message was being sent beyond the "facts" of Jefferson's early life. I, with my love of reading and learning, identified with young Tom. But I also understood that the black boy in the story was supposed to represent the essence of black people, what we were supposed to be like. And I knew that this was not true. This was my first lesson in the power that those who write history possess and the way historians can (and have) promoted notions of white supremacy while writing supposedly "neutral" and "objective" narratives.

This piercing childhood lesson stayed with me until adulthood and led me to write my first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, published in 1997. In it, I dissected how historians had written about the long-term liaison between Jefferson and the enslaved woman Hemings, a topic that was certainly not in the Jefferson biography I read as a child. In the several years that I spent researching and writing that book, it occurred to me that there was much more to the Hemingses' lives than Sally and Tom. Indeed, there was much more to Sally Hemings, who most often appears in the pages of history as a "problem" or a symbol, not as a flesh and blood person. I knew there was more of her story to tell.

My latest book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which The Root is excerpting all week, seeks to move Sally Hemings into full humanity while telling the stories of four generations of Hemingses. The book begins with Sally's mother, Elizabeth, born in 1735, and ends with the beginning of the family's dispersal in 1826 after Jefferson's death. While writing the book, I traveled to archives in Virginia, London and Lancashire, England and drawing upon my French studies to study the laws and culture of France, where Sally Hemings and her brother, James, lived for years. I learned much about the varied experiences of people of African origin during the time of slavery. It was particularly fascinating to recreate the lives of young James and Sally Hemings in pre-Revolutionary Paris, a place where they could have claimed their freedom. The pair received wages that were above the norm for servants in the country and moved about in a city where no one had reason to think of them as anything other than free persons of color. What did the experience mean to them?

There are practical reasons why it is rare to see such an intimate glimpse of the lives of slaves. Because slaves were banned from creating the kinds of documents that remain after one's death—marriage licenses, contracts, wills—even the most skeletal aspects of most slaves lives have been lost to us forever. Most slaves were illiterate and could not leave behind letters to be used by historians to draw pictures of their lives. All that has been left, in many cases, are the memories that enslaved people kept and passed on, the records of the people who enslaved them, and what we can learn from the larger historical context in which enslaved people lived.

The Hemingses have escaped the anonymity of slavery for a number of reasons. First, Jefferson was an obsessive record keeper. Second, some family members were literate, and their writings are available to us. Third, Hemingses have actually appeared in Jefferson biographies, but they are often portrayed as having the same level of complexity as the enslaved boy in my elementary-school biography of Jefferson. Finally, Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings and the attention it engendered from the 1790s on, gave the family a strong reason to remember its roots. It also produced something that only a handful of descendants of enslaved people possess: a published narrative of a man who had been born in slavery and told his family story: Madison Hemings, the second son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.

But even beyond the technical obstacles to learning about the lives of slaves, there is also resistance in the prevailing approach to how we think about African-American history. The life stories of individual blacks tend to be overshadowed by what people believe they know about blacks as a group, rather than by the specific details of that person's life. For blacks, social history almost invariably trumps biography. This, of course, is the very opposite of the protocol followed when writing the lives of whites. Indeed, there is often impatience with the notion of focusing in on one black person's life, lest we lose sight of the "big picture." That is particularly true when enslaved people are involved, because slavery was indeed a very big picture. What's the use, one might ask, of talking about this one enslaved person, that one enslaved family, considering the enormity of blacks' oppression under slavery?

Well, to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. There is a time to look at the overall picture of the lives of enslaved people, and there is a time to narrow the focus and look at individual lives lived under slavery. The abridged chapters of my book that follow give you a sense of what I have tried to accomplish by narrowing the focus, and I look forward to having your thoughts this week about my efforts. The Hemingses deserve to live in the pages of history as living, breathing people, not simply as problems or symbols. I hope you agree.

Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers University. Read the first excerpt about "Sally Hemings in Paris."