Stop Calling Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress

Archaeologists have recently discovered the slave quarters of Sally Hemings, a female slave who lived in President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, and whom Jefferson had six children with, according to many historians and DNA testing.

The discovery was part of the Mountaintop Project, a $35 million project which will restore the mansion to Jefferson’s time, and which will offer tours of the mansion and share the stories of the people who lived in this home- both free and enslaved.

A relationship of this kind was taboo at the time, especially while Jefferson was president.

Rumors of Jefferson’s and Heming’s relationship had been whispered for years in Virginia, where they both lived in Monticello. But in 1802, journalist, James Callender, published the accusation that Jefferson’s mistress was one of his slaves and that he had fathered many of their children, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

A relationship of this kind was taboo at the time, especially while Jefferson was president. To this day, some publications and individuals still refer to Hemings as Jefferson’s mistress, when in fact she could never be, because Jefferson owned Hemings.

Hemings was only three years old when she moved with her family to Monticello as part of Martha Wayles inheritance, who owned her, (Sally and Martha were half sisters), when Martha Wayles married the young Thomas Jefferson.

After Martha’s death in 1782, Hemings served as a nursemaid and companion to Jefferson’s daughters, Maria and Martha. It was believed that a sexual relationship began in 1787, when Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughters to France, where Jefferson served as an American minister.

But a relationship like that can never be seen as romantic and nor can Hemings ever be seen as a mistress. She was legally owned by Jefferson. She had no free will or choice to enter or leave such a relationship. The power division between these two individuals was unequal. One man had all the constitutional rights by virtue of his skin color and station in life. The other, Hemings, had no rights or power to speak up for her mind and body, because she was a slave, and therefore seen as property.

It is true that Hemings could have petitioned for her freedom under French law and left while in France, but her decision to go back to Monticello could have been caused by the strong kinship she had in Virginia, according to American Heritage.

…the power dynamic of a master-slave relationship was unequal, and therefore, should not be romanticized.

Additionally, memoirs from Heming’s and Jefferson’s son, Madison Hemings, revealed that Jefferson encouraged Sally to go back to Virginia with promises of a privileged household status and that all their children would be free when they reach the age of 21. Not long after they arrived back to Monticello, Hemings gave birth to their first child.

What woman wouldn’t bargain for the safety and well being of her children, especially if Sally knew she was pregnant while in France? Did Thomas and Sally love each other? That, we do not know. But what we do know is that the power dynamic of a master-slave relationship was unequal, and therefore, should not be romanticized.

Out of the six children Sally gave birth to, only four survived and were freed as permitted by Jefferson’s will. Even more astonishing, Jefferson never freed Sally, she was his property until his death in 1826.

Sally Hemings’ circumstances as a Black woman and slave were similar to the thousands of other female slaves in the United States during this time period in American history. Bound and constrained with no economic or political power, they were left to the disposal of their white masters to birth their children and face the wrath of the angry White woman over the light skinned children her husband fathered, or defend her body, and face beatings or even death.

There are no written accounts left by Sally to assess her feelings of the situation. But to call her a mistress is an insult not only to her legacy, but to the thousands of other enslaved women.