This is a true American story.
There once was a man named John who married three times. Of the four children resulting from these three marriages, his eldest was named Martha. After the death of his third wife, John had six more children (out of wedlock with a fourth woman named Elizabeth), of which the youngest was named Sarah. Thus, Martha (eldest) and Sarah (youngest) were half-sisters from John’s first and last partners, and they were born 25 years apart.
Martha grew up and married a man named Tom. They had six children, but only one, a daughter named Patsy, survived into adulthood. Moreover, Martha was diabetic, and giving birth so many times proved too much for her; she died at age 33.
Not long after Martha’s death, her widower Tom followed the pattern of his father-in-law John and began having more children out of wedlock. And his partner was none other than Martha’s half-sister Sarah, who was only a teenager at the time. Tom and Sarah produced four children that survived into adulthood. Thus, Tom partnered with two half-sisters to produce five grown children, some of whom were half-siblings of each other (making them “three-quarter-siblings”).
But here’s the thing. Much of this activity was taboo at the time, as some of the individuals involved were enslaved persons whose blood was a mix of European and African origins. John’s partner Elizabeth – who was one of his slaves – was half European/half African, and their daughter Sarah was therefore three-quarters white. In turn, Sarah’s children with her owner Tom were seven-eighths European, but since they were the children of a slave they remained slaves themselves.
We will never know anything about how any of these individuals felt about these relationships, as next to nothing was officially recorded about them and these truths were concealed for almost 200 years.
But we certainly know some of these people very well. Tom is better known as Thomas Jefferson, and his deceased wife’s half-sister – and slave – was named Sarah, but she was more commonly known as Sally Hemings.
DNA analysis confirms that, between 1795 and 1808 (during which time Jefferson served as Vice President and later President) Sally Hemings gave birth to six children by Jefferson, four of whom survived into adulthood. The two eldest, a girl named Harriet and a boy named Beverley, ran away from their enslavement at Monticello – perhaps with Jefferson’s blessing – and were not pursued. They may have later entered white society in Washington. The younger two, boys named Madison and Eston, were freed by Jefferson in his will in 1826, and moved into Charlottesville.
As for Sally Hemings, she nearly disappeared into history. Jefferson made no reference to her in his voluminous correspondences, or in his will. When his effects – including hundreds of slaves – went up for auction, Jefferson’s daughter Patsy – who was Sally’s half-niece – withheld Sally’s name from the property list and she was “given her time” to live freely with her younger sons in town. The last reference to her is an 1833 census report listing her as a “free white person”. Her exact burial place is unknown, but historians generally agree that she lies in an unmarked grave, under the parking lot of the Charlottesville Hampton Inn.
This Independence Day weekend, visitors to Monticello will notice a renovation taking place. In the south wing of the home, adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s sleeping quarters, is a room that has served as a public bathroom since 1941. Given the fairly recent official acceptance of the Jefferson/Hemings relationship, historians and archaeologists have examined this room closely, and they have concluded that it was probably Sally’s own personal quarters.
The bathroom fixtures and linoleum tiles are being torn out, to be replaced by an accurate representation of the room, complete with period furniture and artifacts found on-site, such as bone toothbrushes and ceramics. The renovation is expected to be completed by 2018.
It’s a final chapter in a uniquely American story.
Sally Hemings is officially returning to Monticello.