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  • In Search of Sally Hemings in the Post-DNA Era
  • Mia Bay (bio)

Most of the African-American women who were enslaved in the American South are utterly anonymous today. A few extraordinary women who managed to escape from slavery are well known, such as Harriet Tubman—the heroine of the Underground Railroad.1 But the vast majority of slave women who remained in bondage led lives left entirely unrecorded and unremembered. One striking exception is Sally Hemings, who has been subject to centuries of commentary—quite possibly more than any other black woman who lived out her life in the slave South. A woman of many nicknames, "dashing Sally" has long been famous as the female slave whose name was coupled with that of founding father Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 scandal about the widowed president's private life.2 At that time, a disaffected Republican journalist wrote of Jefferson that "the man, whom it delighth the people to honor, keeps, and has for many past years has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY."3

Never much of scandal, the "black Sal" stories did not derail Jefferson's bid for reelection in 1804, nor gain historical credence until quite recently. But stories about Sally Hemings have lingered on to this day. Remembered by her family and other African-Americans in the decades after her death, she was also the stuff of both pro- and anti-slavery doggerel during the antebellum era. Moreover, she became fodder for romantic fiction in the twentieth century, which saw her featured as a partner in "a forbidden love" in Barbara Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemings, a 1979 bestseller that inspired equally romantic film treatments—the most atrocious of which is Jefferson in Paris (1995).4

Outside the world of political verse and romantic fiction, however, Sally Hemings has only recently begun to receive any kind of serious attention. Until recently, Jefferson scholars were near unanimous in denouncing any notion of a liaison between the founding father and his slave as a myth, as can be seen in their response to one historical treatment of a possible Jefferson-Hemings relationship: noted biographer Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. Published in 1974 to popular acclaim, Jefferson experts excoriated Brodie's bestselling book for its serious treatment of the possibility of a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.5 Historical consensus against [End Page 407] the Hemings-Jefferson relationship remained largely unshaken until 1997, when Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. An incisive critique of standards of evidence used by Jefferson scholars to reject the possibility of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship, Gordon-Reed's book exposed the selective use of evidence in the work of many historians who insisted that such a liaison would be inconsistent with Jefferson's moral character. It also shook the consensus among Jefferson scholars on its subject, which then collapsed a year later when DNA tests performed in 1998 at long last vindicated Hemings descendants' claims of blood ties to Jefferson. That year, the august Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, and had previously rejected the Hemings-Jefferson link, conceded "the best evidence available" supported the possibility that "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings."6

Still, Hemings remains a shadowy figure even as her connection to Jefferson becomes ever more widely discussed and investigated. The recent reversal of the scholarly consensus against a Hemings-Jefferson relationship has unleashed a flood of new Jefferson scholarship, much of which revisits Jefferson as man who had some kind of long-term relationship with his slave Sally Hemings with the aim of understanding the relationship in the context of his life and thought. Meanwhile, Hemings also figures in a backlash of dissenting scholarship from those who dispute the Jefferson establishments' reading of the DNA evidence.7 In other words, the controversy lives on, focusing renewed attention on Hemings. Yet all this attention sheds surprising little new light on her. On both sides of today's debate, as is also...


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pp. 407-426
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