Sally Hemings


Sally (Sarah) Hemings was born a slave, owned by Thomas Jefferson, in 1773. She started out as caretaker of Jefferson’s daughters, and eventually accompanied them to be with their father in Paris in 1787. For two years she lived with Jefferson and his family in Paris, during this time two things happened. Hemings became involved with Thomas, becoming pregnant with his child. She also began to get a taste of what being a free woman could be like. She began learning the French language and culture, and she realized that if she were to stay in France, she could be deemed a free woman.

Jefferson had different plans, he planned for Sally to return back to Virginia with him. He wanted her to return with him so badly that he promised her extended privileges, including a promise that her children shall be named free after the age of 21. While there is little evidence of their affection for each other, it is clear that Sally must have cared deeply for Jefferson to give up a chance at freedom. Even with the privileges Jefferson gifted her with, she would still be returning to a country that viewed her as property instead of a human being.

This choice to return back to Virginia leads me to believe that the core of Sally Hemings identity was being a woman, not being born a slave. She had a chance Very simply Kerber states “it is doubtful that Hemings thought being a slave was more at the core of her existence than being female; she could cease to be the one, never the other.” Being a woman also afforded her certain privileges that she would not have had as a male slave. She was never sent to the fields as other slaves were, she was chosen to tend to the home instead. While she was not free, her situation was not that much different than many free women of her time. She bared children and cared for the home, while her relationship with Jefferson could never be public, its clear he cared for and supported her. I doubt the Hemings ever truly felt like a slave. hemmings2


9 thoughts on “Sally Hemings

  1. Nice post, Danielle! It must’ve been an extremely difficult choice for Sally to decide between being a free woman without Jefferson or an enslaved woman with Jefferson. If she had chosen the former, then we could infer that Sally felt more deeply about her slavehood than womanhood. It’s pretty obvious that Sally had intense feelings for Jefferson to risk her freedom to remain with him. I feel as though today’s standards make it a bit hard to fully understand Sally’s choice. Admittedly, when I first read this, I was shocked that Sally picked to return to Virginia as a slave when offered her freedom. There are so many societal and historical differences to consider that this piece made me think profoundly about the situation!

  2. Hello Danielle, I also agree that Sally’s core of identity was to feel like a woman. She knew that by residing with Jefferson she would be offered a somewhat passionate companionship. And she possibly thought it would be better to be with him, rather than raise her unborn child alone. I wonder what was the true arrangements between the two? I also wish there were photographs of Jefferson and Sally, sometimes visuals can tell you so much more.

    1. I couldn’t agree more! Sally’s womanhood was definitely the root of her identity. I like how you phrased her relationship with Jefferson as a “somewhat passionate companionship”. It really got me thinking about the limitations the couple must’ve had, what with her status remaining his mistress rather than his wife. While reading her story, I wondered why she didn’t decide to stay in Paris and find a suitable husband within the small community of color there. They were, after all, made up mainly of men with ages raging from their late teens to early twenties; the same age group as Sally. Do you think that her love for Jefferson was a deciding factor in that? Quite the curious situation.

    2. I cant imagine what I would have chosen in her situation. I think a large part of it also had to do with the thought of leaving her family. If she returned home she would have her mother and sisters support with raising her child, while in France she would be all alone. I imagine if she had not been favored by Jefferson, and had a worse situation as a slave, she may have felt differently as well.

  3. Your post about the life and experiences of Sally Hemings was extremely insightful. I can only imagine what kind of internal struggle she must have been battling: to stay in France and become a free woman or to stay with Jefferson and remain enslaved. I agree with you that this would infer that she cared for Jefferson. It appears as though she had a choice, and Jefferson obviously cared for her to some degree if he was promising her extended privileges – privileges that others, in this time period, would love to have.

    Instead of taking the march towards freedom in France, she stayed with Jefferson, knowing her children could be free once they became adults. We may not know much about their personal interactions, but based on what we do know, they must have loved each other in some way, shape, or form. It is even more obvious that Sally, herself, held a great deal of love for Jefferson if she was willing to throw away a chance at freedom for him.

    I also believe that, at the core of her identity, she was a woman. She wasn’t a slave at her core. She, and others like her, was enslaved by white men who were bloodthirsty for power. Colonialism made her a slave. The culture she could have grown up in was stolen from her because of white colonialism.

    Kerber’s statement about how she could cease to be one, but never the other is clear evidence about who Sally is at the core of her being. She saw her womanhood, her potential, and the lives of her children. She did only see her future, but theirs. She saw chances and privileges that others could only dream of having. Her relationship with Jefferson allowed her to feel free in a society that was designed to hurt her. While she might have been a slave in the eyes of white men, there would come a day where black women could just be black women. In her eyes, Sally Hemings was a woman first and foremost. She always would be.

  4. Whichever way you look at it, Sally Hemings was a very brave and strong woman- which I greatly admire! The decisions she had to make as an ethnic woman in slavery who shared children with a white man in power must have been difficult for her to make. Ultimately, she put her children first and valued their livelihoods which is crucial of any good parent. She certainly handled motherhood with great strength!

  5. Hello Danielle,

    I agree with Nori, your post is very insightful and I like that you included Kerber’s statement of how it is doubtful that Hemings thought of her core existence as being a slave rather then her womanhood. Of course, women slaves had certain privileges that men slaves did not, and effectively were treated differently by slave masters. A lot of this has to do with the time period and how society viewed each other. I personally believe that Sally moved her family to Virginia with Jefferson because she wanted what was best for herself and her children, no matter what it took, even if that meant submitting to Jefferson. Sally is such a strong, powerful woman to have gone through the things she did and so brave.

    Good post!

  6. After reading this I am still shocked that this relationship happened. This was a time when you didn’t want people knowing you were with a slave. Although she still had the slave title I liked that she wasn’t really what we would consider a slave. She had the opportunity to do things that many women didn’t get to do like learn another language. Although there relationship wasn’t approved it was nice to see that she didn’t get treated to awful and still had some freedoms and was able to do house work and things like that instead of field work.

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