Friday, February 23, 2007

Sally Heming's Children

To honor Black History Month I thought I’d take out my fine kid gloves and examine the issue of Sally Hemings again. Say you don’t know who she was? Well, it was James Thomson Callendar (a writer for the Richmond Reporter) who first began to allege that America‘s third President, Thomas Jefferson, kept one of his slaves as his "concubine" and fathered children with her. Mr Callendar went on to write, “The name of SALLY will walk down to posterity alongside of Mr. Jefferson's own name.”

What is known of Sally Hemings? She was a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson, inherited through his wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (October 19/30, 1748 - September 6, 1782) when her father died. Sally's mother Betsy or Betty was said to be the daughter of a black slave woman and a white ship captain; Betsy's children were said to have been fathered by her owner, John Wayles, making Sally a half-sister of Jefferson's wife. From 1784, Sally apparently served as a maid and companion of Mary Hemings. Martha Jefferson died in 1782. In 1787, Jefferson, serving the new United States government as a diplomat in Paris, sent for his younger daughter to join him, and Sally was sent with Mary.

What is alleged, and not known except by implication, is that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings began an intimate relationship in Paris, Sally returning to the United States pregnant, Jefferson promising to free any of her (their) children when they reached the age of 21.What little evidence there is of a child born to Sally after her return from France is mixed: some sources say the child died quite young (the Hemings family tradition).

What is more certain is that Sally had six other children. Their dates of birth are recorded in Jefferson's Farm Book or in letters he wrote. DNA tests in 1998, and a careful rendering of the birth dates and Jefferson's well-documented travels, puts Jefferson at Monticello during a "conception window" for each of the children born to Sally. Other possible fathers were either eliminated by the 1998 DNA tests on male-line descendants (the Carr brothers) or dismissed because of internal inconsistencies in the evidence.

The affair was revealed publicly by James Callender after Jefferson refused him a job. There is no reason to believe she left Monticello until after Jefferson's death, when she went to live with her son Eston. When Eston moved away, she spent her last two years living on her own. There have been a series of studies conducted. The William & Mary Quarterly published a probabilistic analysis of the timing of Jefferson's visits to Monticello and Hemings's pregnancies which concluded that it was highly likely that the two series of events were related. The National Genealogical Society Quarterly of September 2001 concluded that four children of Sally Hemings were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

And here’s one more fact we can throw into the mix. At least three of Hemings's children passed as White. Frederick Madison Roberts (1879-1952), her great-grandson, has the distinction of being the first person of known African-American ancestry elected to public office on the West Coast. He served in the California State Assembly from 1919-1934. So, while you chew on this Y chromosome here some poems to serve as after-dinner sweets:

Post Script Sonnet

I'm not alone. Everyone desires real dirt
on the ground. Comfortable hiking boots.
Quick-drying paint. Friendly taco vendors.
Nothing compact and limiting. A sky clear
enough to trace with your finger. Fresh air
for the tuba. Bowls of orange sherbet. All
the honeycomb that's left. Journeys short
enough not to be tiring. Baited fish hooks.
More clover than grass. Unseasonably
warm weather for February. Grapes on the
vine. Lawn chairs. Scented candles. A pair
of changeable underwear. Pine cones worth
collecting. Deer sightings. Harmonica fit for
background music. Romantic words with the
voltage to generate their own power. Belfry
views. Piano in the dark. Death that's smart
enough to stay away from our rocking chairs.

This poem first appeared online at:
Visit my e-zine at:
And my music blog:
Research info provided by:


Anonymous said...

Frederick Madison Roberts also has Jewish ancestry due to the DNA of Thomas Jefferson. Roberts has Moroccan Jewish, Kurdish Jewish and Egyptian ancestry as well.

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Ty Abimbola-Sodipe said...

It is so amazing that someone wants Roberts to have Kurddish, Jewish and Morrocan anscetory, the woman Sally Herming was a gutful black woman be we like it or not. What is pathetic of people is that as soon as her children are of American President, you all wants to have a peice of the pie. Jefferson affairs with Sally was a true love in time when taking risk was dangerous to both of them, and I tilt my heart to both.

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