Sally Hemings and Her Place in American History

As a third grader, Annette Gordon-Reed remembers reading her first biography of Thomas Jefferson. Her fascination with this former president continued through her adolescence and adulthood, inspiring her to eventually become a distinguished historian and writer. However, it wasn’t Jefferson himself who most ignited her imagination but his longtime slave, Sally Hemings (1773-1835).

Throughout her celebrated career, Professor Gordon-Reed – the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard Law School and a Professor of History at Harvard University – has devoted much of her transformative scholarship to telling Ms. Hemings’ remarkable story, focusing not only on her decades-long relationship with Jefferson but on who she was as a complex woman shaped by race, gender, status and circumstance.

On January 26, the Chapin community had the distinct privilege of spending a virtual evening with this noted scholar. As the 2021 Gilder Lehrman Institute Lecturer, she centered her captivating talk around her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (2008), a follow up to her previous work, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings” (1997).

Inaugurated in 2006, Chapin’s annual lecture is the result of the School’s wonderful partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which promotes the understanding of U.S. history through educational programs. Students in Classes 7 and 11 logged into the virtual webinar, along with current and past parents, professional community members, alums, grandparents and friends.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for History, Professor Gordon-Reed has received a multitude of honors including a National Book Award, the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur “genius” grant. The author of numerous volumes, she was a lawyer before pivoting to a career in writing and academia.

“This book means so much to me,” exclaimed Professor Gordon-Reed after Head of School Suzanne Fogarty’s warm welcome and an introduction from James Basker, the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

“I was dissatisfied with the dismissal of the Hemings family in connection to Jefferson, so I asked myself, ‘What can I do?’”

The “dismissal” Professor Gordon-Reed was referring to was the systematic removal of Sally Hemings and her family from historical records. For 150 years, historians denied that Jefferson had had an intimate relationship with his slave and fathered her six children, despite compelling evidence supporting this claim. Although most modern historians believe the relationship indeed existed, it wasn’t until 1998 that DNA testing proved Jefferson’s paternity.

Through her groundbreaking and painstaking research, Professor Gordon-Reed sheds new light on this long-simmering historical debate, helping to restore the Hemingses rightful place in the American narrative. By examining Jefferson’s copious archives – he was “an inveterate record keeper” – the speaker described how she was able to piece together a timeline that traced the Hemings family from the 1700s in Virginia to the years following Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826.

Professor Gordon-Reed’s sweeping, 800-page book, which she characterized as “a generational saga of an enslaved family,” also benefited from the fact that the Hemingses lived at Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, for more than half a century. “I could follow their lives unlike [slave] families separated by sale,” she said. She also noted that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, which may have contributed to Jefferson’s preferential treatment of her.

Along with Sally Hemings, the book includes significant sections about her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, her siblings, and four of her children with Jefferson who lived (two died in infancy): sons Beverly, Madison, and Eston, and daughter Harriet. “I wanted to go beyond Sally Hemings,” she said, adding that recollections from Madison Hemings played an important role in her research.

At one point, Professor Gordon-Reed shared a revealing story about young Sally Hemings and the time she and her brother, James, spent in Paris, where Jefferson was serving on a diplomatic mission. Ms. Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter on the journey in 1787 and in time became Jefferson’s “concubine,” the professor explained.

Learning she was pregnant, Ms. Hemings wanted to remain in Paris, where she knew slavery was illegal by French law. However, Jefferson made her an offer of sorts. If she returned to Virginia, he promised to free her child, and any future children, once they reached adulthood.

“Sally decides to come back with Jefferson,” said Professor Gordon-Reed. “Why did she do that? people ask me. Think about it. It would have been very difficult to leave her family. This is the dilemma of all enslaved people. Do you take the freedom and leave your family behind?”

In the end, Jefferson kept his promise. As the professor reiterated, Sally Hemings and her family were elevated above other enslaved people, likely because of their biological connection to his late wife. Thus, the Hemings children held domestic jobs and never had to work as servants. In addition, “they got a head start on emancipation.”

“Some saw it as a story of survival,” Professor Gordon-Reed pointed out, reflecting on the complicated choices Ms. Hemings faced. “People like Sally used whatever agency they had to make a better life for themselves and their families.”

For the last few minutes of her riveting lecture, Professor Gordon-Reed graciously responded to a number of previously submitted questions, one of which touched on the challenges of her research process.

“It’s tough when you’re dealing with little snippets of information. It’s like a puzzle. You have to think creatively and broadly and prepare for dry holes that lead nowhere,” she said, adding “You have to believe in your project and savor every victory. And you have to love it!”

In his closing remarks, Dr. Basker praised Professor Gordon-Reed for her compassionate and thought-provoking talk. “What you’ve done for these students is really open up a world of different people and different circumstances and help us to understand them as human beings,” he said.

“The other thing you’ve done is you’ve modeled a possibility. I’m hoping there are Chapin students who got a chance to hear you tonight who can see in you something they might aspire to and might become.”

To watch a video of Professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s Gilder Lehrman Institute Lecture, click here: https://vimeo.com/505376186.