The Original Black First Lady: Sally Hemings

  • Blog Post by: $author
  • August 19, 2009 - 12:04 AM
I recently did a radio interview with BJ Janice Peak-Graham about my book, Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton. She said that as she was reading the book, she was struck with the realization that I was, in fact, writing about her life. She had been a Clinton appointee, and it had never occurred to her that her experience was part of the political history of that time period.

Watching the coverage of the Obama family in the White House, one can’t help but feel a certain media giddiness to be able to report on all these new “firsts.” But to say that this family is the first Black family of an American president is simply wrong.

Before Michelle Obama there was Sally Hemings, who bore the sons and daughters of Thomas Jefferson. I’d like to share an excerpt from my second book edited with Bruce D Baum, Racially Writing the Republic.


One of Thomas Jefferson’s more convoluted legacies is the material and cultural capital – including access to racial whiteness – he passed on to Sally Hemings’s children. He freed all of Hemings’s children. Following his promise to Sally that her children would be freed at the age of twenty-one, her oldest children, Beverley (a son) and his sister Harriet, were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822, the year that Harriet turned twenty-one. (Beverley had turned twenty-one two years earlier.) By the terms of Jefferson’s will (he died on July 4, 1826), Madison and Eston Hemings were freed, after ostensibly serving as apprentices until they attained their majority to their uncle, the carpenter Johnny Hemings.

At Jefferson’s extraordinary request, the brothers were given permission by the Virginia legislature in 1826 to remain in the state after winning freedom. (An 1806 law had decreed that emancipated slaves otherwise had to leave Virginia within a year.) That the Hemings children’s freedom was tied to their coming of age suggests that Jefferson thought of Sally Hemings as his “substitute wife.” Jefferson freed no other slave in this fashion. Furthermore, Harriet Hemings was the only female slave Jefferson ever freed.

Madison Hemings referred to his parents’ relationship as the “treaty” of Paris – a treaty of sexual commerce – with Jefferson promising lenient, indulging treatment in return for sexual favors. The Hemings children and their descendents gained tangible benefits from this sexual commerce, although until recently this did not include recognition as Jeffersons. As Lucia Stanton explains, “Jefferson gave Madison Hemings what few sons of slave women received – a skilled trade, if not an education, and the freedom to pursue it for his own benefit.”

At the same time, Madison’s children and grandchildren remained in Ohio, where he had moved, and “were bound by the restricted opportunities for blacks at the time.” Meanwhile, Harriet, Beverley, and Eston Hemings passed into the white world. They traded the burdens of hiding the Black side of their family tree for the benefits of racial whiteness. For instance, Eston and his wife Julia moved to Ohio in 1852, passed into whiteness, and changed their family name to Jefferson. Their daughter Anna married and lived as a white woman; their sons Beverly F. Jefferson and John Wayles Jefferson became successful businessmen, and their “grandsons even exceeded the success of [their] sons.”


If you want to read more, you need to buy the book, but here’s the question of the week, “Have you ever “passed” for anything? (Straight, wealthy, or even another religion, or race?)

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