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Wed, 04.28.1773

Sally Hemings, Domestic Servant born

Sally Hemings (likeness)

*The birth of Sally Hemings in 1773 is celebrated on this date. She was a Black domestic chambermaid. She was also the mistress to and mother of (some) president Thomas Jefferson's children.

Born a slave in Shadwell, Albemarle County, Virginia, Hemings’ given name was Sarah, the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and, allegedly, John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law.  She became Thomas Jefferson's property as part of his First Families of Virginia (FFV) inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774 and came with her mother to Monticello by 1776.

As a child, she was most likely a "nurse" to Jefferson's daughter Mary (slave girls from the age of six or eight were childminders and assistants to head nurses on southern plantations.) Hemings and Mary Jefferson lived at the home of Mary's aunt and uncle in 1787 when Jefferson's long-expressed desire to have his daughter join him in France was carried out. Fourteen-year-old Sally and eight-year-old Mary crossed the Atlantic Ocean to London that summer.

Jefferson had wanted someone who had had smallpox or been inoculated against it to accompany his daughter to France; soon, Hemings was inoculated by Dr. Robert Sutton.  While in Paris, with training in needlework and clothing care as a lady's maid to Jefferson's daughters, she was occasionally paid a monthly wage of about two dollars. When booking lodging for the return to America, Jefferson asked that Hemings's berth be "convenient to that of my daughters." After the family's return to Virginia in 1789, she remained at Monticello with the duties of a household servant and lady's maid (Jefferson still referred to her as "Maria's maid" in 1799).

Her son Madison remembered that one of her duties was "to take care of [Jefferson's] chamber and wardrobe, look after us children, and do light work such as sewing." There are only two known descriptions of Hemings. The slave Isaac Jefferson remembered that she was "mighty near white, very handsome, long straight hair down her back." Jefferson's biographer Henry S. Randall recalled Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph describing her as "light colored and decidedly good looking." Hemings may have lived in the stone workman's house (now called the "Weaver's Cottage") from 1790 to 1792, when she, like her sister Critta might have moved to one of the new 12'x14' log cabins farther down Mulberry Row.

After completing the south buildings, she apparently lived in one of the "servant's rooms" under the south terrace (Thomas J. Randolph pointed it out many years later). Thomas Jefferson never officially freed Hemings. It seems most likely that Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph gave Sally "her time," a form of unofficial freedom that would enable her to remain in Virginia (the laws at that time required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). Madison Hemings reported that his mother lived in Charlottesville with him and his brother Eston until she died in 1835.


Clara Fisher of Washington says she is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

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