Sally Hemings, an enslaved Black woman who bore at least six of Thomas Jefferson’s children while living in the slave quarters of Monticello, was once lost to the annals of history. But now, after decades of historical and biographical accounts have quibbled over Hemings’s agency and authority, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has debuted an exhibit at Jefferson’s former Virginia home that presents Hemings as a “fully-dimensioned human being: a mother, a sister, a daughter, a world traveler,” according to Gayle Jessup White, one of her descendants. It’s a recognition that is long overdue, and an example of how Black women’s stories only come to the surface when gatekeepers deem them valuable and worthwhile.
Many historians have struggled to piece together the facts of Hemings’s life, but what’s clear is that she was only 14 in 1787 when she accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Polly to Paris after the death of Martha, Jefferson’s wife and her half-sibling. Jefferson, her legal slave master, was a 44-year-old American minister at the time. In 1789, when the family was set to return to the states, 16-year-old Hemings was already pregnant with their first child. Slavery was outlawed in France by the time the Jeffersons arrived, and Hemings wanted to stay and enjoy her newfound freedom.