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Survivor Stories: Sarah "Sally" Hemings

February 1, 2019

 

 

For over 38 years, former President Thomas Jefferson committed acts of violence against Sally Hemings, an enslaved Black woman thirty years younger than him at the time.

 

A collection of essays from expert historians has exposed Jefferson's exploitation of Sally and the intersections of physical, psychological and sexual abuse inherent in American slavery.

 

In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation reported that, based on all of the evidence collected over the decades, including DNA evidence focusing on the Y chromosome of the male Jefferson line, Thomas Jefferson fathered six of Sally's children. Historian Winthrop Jordan argued that Sally only became pregnant when Thomas was at the Monticello plantation.

 

Additional studies unearthed that none of Jefferson’s relatives were present at Monticello during the nine months before each of Sally’s pregnancies, making it virtually impossible for any other relative to father Sally’s children. Centuries of forced breeding and sexualized exploitation resulted in generations of trauma and historical memory that haunts Black women even today.

 

At thirteen years old, Sally accompanied the nine-year-old daughter of Jefferson –– who was then the ambassador to France –– to Paris when he sent for his daughter to live with him. Sally was pregnant by the time she was 16. Descriptions of Sally include “Jefferson’s mistress” or “Jefferson’s concubine”, and the two were described as being in a liaison, an affair, a relationship.

 

The true history was covered, buried, and coded as a relationship, when we know that Sally did not and could not consent to such violent circumstances that consumed her girlhood and womanhood. But as an enslaved Black woman, Sally was Jefferson’s property and was never officially freed by the former president.

 

The power structure between Sally and Jefferson made it such that Sally could not have freely and willingly participated in a relationship with Jefferson. Enslaved women were forced to comply with sexual abuse or risk punishment or death. Those who complied instead or fought often did so in the hopes that the abuse would not be passed down to their children. Enslaved women who became known as “concubines” for slave masters were forced into those roles due to the threats of further sexual or physical abuse. This is both coercion and exploitation.

 

Though films and novels have romanticized the relationship between Sally and Jefferson, the truth is she was a sex slave to Jefferson.  She has never been given the unequivocal consideration that she was an abuse and sexual assault survivor.   

 

We offer her that now as we ask: Who else deserves justice like Sally Hemings? Who else deserves an apology?

 

 

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