avatarAllison Wiltz



Why No One Should Be Calling Sally Hemings Thomas Jefferson's Mistress

This terminology implies a level of consent never given

AI-generated portrait of 14-year-old Sally Hemings near Monticello | Created by the author using Canvia

From a Black American perspective, this country has a duplicitous nature, like Thalia and Melpomene, the Greek comedy and tragedy mask. How else can you explain that Thomas Jefferson, our country's third president and "founding father," who claimed "all men are created equal" in The Declaration of Independence enslaved hundreds of Black people? At Monticello, his Virginia plantation, Jefferson deprived hundreds of Black people of any semblance of equality, let alone the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," he alluded to in America's founding doctrine. And the story of Sally Hemings puts a fine point on the injustices Black women regularly experienced during the chattel slavery era.

In historical texts, many people have referred to Sally Hemings, who was 14 years old when 44-year-old Thomas Jefferson began a sexual relationship with her as his "concubine" or "mistress." For instance, in 1802, James Callender wrote in a Virginia newspaper that Sally was Jefferson's "concubine," adding, "It is well-known." However, once you understand the nature of slavery, you will realize why this terminology aims to protect the character of the enslaver while manufacturing consent for sexual exploitation. As Britni Danielle wrote in the Washington Post, "Sally Hemings wasn't Thomas Jefferson's mistress. She was his property." No love story genuinely starts with a man enslaving a woman, which is why no one should be referring to Sally Hemings as a "concubine" or "mistress."

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was the most extensive human trafficking operation in human history and the largest forced migration. However, the initial crime of mass human trafficking was only the beginning of the horrors that Black women experienced. Once sold and living on plantations, Black women and girls like Sally Hemings were sexually exploited to increase the population of enslaved people. There was no process of courting, of asking a Black woman for her hand in marriage, seeking her consent, or even a grace period of waiting until a girl reached physical maturity in relationships between Black enslaved women and White slave-owning men.

Enslaving Sally Hemings stripped her right to consent.

Since Black women during this era did not have the legal right to reject the sexual advances of White men, it's unfair to assume that Sally Hemings consented to her relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Why give the enslaver the benefit of the doubt? In 1662, partus sequitur ventrem, which means "that which is born follows the womb," became law in Virginia, mandating that children born to enslaved mothers would also be enslaved for life and be owned by the slaveowner of the mother. This legislation, which was commonly implemented in slave states, incentivized White men to sexually exploit Black women without any fear of consequence or reprisal. While inheritance followed the patriarchal line for White families, chattel slavery treated Black women as nothing more than livestock, following laws that historically followed the matriarchal line, thereby allowing White men to systematically rape and impregnate women, increasing the number of enslaved people they owned. Instead of a slap on the wrist, rapists like Thomas Jefferson were rewarded financially for repeatedly sexually exploiting enslaved Black women. Sally Hemings became a victim of this system.

The experiences that female slaves endured included public nudity; nude physical auction examinations to determine reproductive ability; rape for sexual pleasure and for economic purposes (reproducing children who could become slaves). Dominique R. Wilson wrote in 2021 in the Journal of Race, Gender, and Ethnicity.

A groundbreaking DNA study revealed that "most Americans of African descent have roots in territories now located in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo." Researchers also concluded that African females overwhelmingly contributed to the gene pool despite the majority of enslaved people being male, a phenomenon attributed to "the rape of enslaved African women by slave owners and other sexual exploitation." So, for those who study the history of slavery, it isn't surprising that Jefferson began a sexual relationship with someone he enslaved because this was a central part of Antebellum culture. However, what is perhaps more shocking is that Jefferson, a wealthy and politically powerful man, could not keep his relationship with an enslaved woman under wraps. Maybe this is because of the marked difference in the way he treated Sally compared to other enslaved people.

While the Hemings and her children were not given a more gracious allowance for food, housing, or clothing, they were given some privileges. For example, while many Black people enslaved at Monticello harvested crops such as tobacco, and wheat, others worked as blacksmiths, nail-makers, carpenters, charcoal burners, and house joiners, Sally Hemings, who was a Quarteron, someone who is half White and Mulatto, worked as a house slave and her children were allowed to enter trades traditionally deprived to enslaved people. While Hemings had a light-skinned complexion, she was enslaved because her mother, a Mulatto woman named Elizabeth Hemings, was enslaved by a White man, John Wayles.

While there are no photographs of proper portraits of Sally Hemings, her complexion was likely light based on eyewitness accounts, and she could easily pass for White. For example, formerly enslaved blacksmith Issac Granger Jefferson said, "Sally was mighty near white… Sally was very handsome, long, straight hair down her back." In 1847, Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, described her as "light-colored and decidedly good looking." Throughout her early life, Sally worked inside as a house slave, as a nursemaid for Jefferson's daughter Maria from 1784 to 1787, as a lady's maid to Martha and Maria from 1787 to 1797, and as a chambermaid and seamstress from 1790s until 1827.

Jefferson first pursued Sally Hemings in France.

According to Edmund Bacon, an overseer at Monticello, "Sally Hemings went to France with Martha Jefferson when she was a little girl. Mr. Jefferson was minister to France, and he wanted to put her in school there." Since Sally Hemings left behind no written testimony, and historians are not sure if she was literate, the closest thing we have to hearing her perspective of the relationship was a statement made by their son, Madison Hemings, who spilled the tea about their interaction in France: "So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. As a consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia." Sally was presumed to be pregnant when she returned to Virginia at 16 years old. Madison shared that Sally became a "slave concubine" of Jefferson while in France. Altogether, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson had six children together, four of whom survived to adulthood: Harriet, a daughter, and Beverly, Eston, and Madison, their sons. The children took Sally's last name, Hemings, and not Jefferson, that of their father.

At the time, slavery was still legal in France, so Hemings had no legal right to resist Jefferson. Still, having no other alternative, evidence suggests she did negotiate with Jefferson for her children's freedom as a pregnant teenager in France. While Jefferson never formally freed Sally, he did ultimately emancipate each of their enslaved children. In the 1830 Census, Sally described herself as a "free Mulatto," in 1826, likely because Jefferson permitted her to live with two of her adult children, who were free and passed for white. Notably, Jefferson did not free any other nuclear family he enslaved. One of his children, Harriet Hemings, who was working as a wool spinner, "ran away" when she was twenty-one years old in 1822, moved to Washington, D.C., "where she started a family and passed into white society as a free woman." Notably, Jefferson did not pursue her capture.

I give them their freedom. and I humbly and earnestly request of the legislature of Virginia a confirmation of the bequest of freedom to these servants, with permission to remain in this state where their families and connections are, as an additional instance of the favor, of which I have recieved so many other manifestations, in the course of my life, and for which I now give them my last, solemn, and dutiful thanks. — Thomas Jefferson’s Last Will and Testament

"Mistress" and "Concubine" obscure the nature of their relationship.

Typically, the term "mistress" is used to describe an extramarital affair. Still, when we consider the lack of evidence of consent in this relationship, this terminology is incredibly offensive to Black women deprived of the freedom to consent. There is more evidence that Sally Hemings did not want a sexual relationship with Jefferson, for instance, her son suggesting she initially declined to leave France with Jefferson, than the contrary. There are no love letters between the pair, no emancipation papers, no effort to leave her property or empower her. Yet, the term "mistress" makes it seem like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were in love. In-kind, "concubine" often refers to a woman having an extramarital relationship with a man and notably has a lower status than his wife. While Hemings did have a lower rank than Jefferson's White wife, who died before their relationship began, this status was forced upon her. It's not as if she proudly self-identified as Jeffeson's concubine, mistress, or sidepiece, so why are some historians so attached to this outdated terminology?

Throughout his life, Jefferson owned six hundred human beings, many of whom lived on his Monticello plantation. While he could have easily pursued a White woman to remarry after his wife died or to have a relationship with, he chose to pursue Sally Hemings, a teenager whom he enslaved. As lofty as the ideas Jefferson shared about democracy were, we cannot sweep his ideas about race and his exploitation of Black women under the table to create a more pleasing narrative for some Americans. Thomas Jefferson described Black people as "domestic animals," and to reiterate, he never decided to emancipate Sally Hemings. Keeping her enslaved was a choice and not one a lover would make.

Many Americans want to hide the true nature of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson because it exposes the habitual sexual exploitation and rape of Black women by White slave owners. However, we must face our history, no matter how twisted. After all, many Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson are here today as a result of his relationship with Sally Hemings. How, then, can so many Americans deny history, as if closing our eyes changes reality? With all due respect to past historians, Sally Heminngs should not be referred to as Jeffersons' "mistress" or "concubine" because this is not a role she chose for herself. Only once a Black woman is truly free to consent is a relationship rooted in love and mutual desire. Anything short of that is sexual exploitation.

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