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The Hemings Family

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Archaeology indicates that Hemings owned more than 30 pieces of Chinese and English ceramics, probably purchased in Charlottesville. Shown here are (clockwise from top right): English wine bottle fragment, green and blue shell-edge pearlware plate rim fragments, and Chinese...

Tableware fragments from Elizabeth Hemings's house site.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

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Elizabeth Hemings and her daughters Mary, Betty Brown, Critta, and Sally sewed for members of the Monticello house as well as their own families. Slaves augmented their clothing rations with purchases of finer cloth, ribbon, metal buckles, and buttons. They also made their...

Sewing-related artifacts.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation

As many as 70 members of the Hemings family lived in slavery at Monticello over five generations. Elizabeth Hemings  (1735–1807) and her children arrived at Monticello around 1774 as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles, who was likely the father of six of the children.

Members of the family eventually occupied the most important positions in Monticello’s labor force. They helped build the Monticello house, ran the household, made furniture, cooked Jefferson’s meals, cared for his children and grandchildren, attended him in his final moments, and dug his grave. Elizabeth’s daughter Sally Hemings was likely the mother of four of his children. The nine people Jefferson freed in his lifetime and will were all members of the Hemings family.

Elizabeth Hemings occupied a single-room log house on the southern slope of Monticello mountain for the last decade of her life, when she was no longer an active member of the enslaved work force. She likely spent her time raising poultry, growing vegetables, and caring for young children. Archaeology indicates that she owned more than 30 pieces of Chinese and English ceramics, probably purchased in Charlottesville.
 

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MAKING HARD DECISIONS: PASSING

Would you have tried to "pass"? Explore this and other challenging decisions faced by Monticello's enslaved families.

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The Yellow Children of Monticello by Pam Ward for my cousins, descendant of Sally Hemmings Before Roosevelt Way before J.F.K. Before Clinton claimed, “I Did Not Have Sex!” on tv. Before Monica Lewinsky tripped & forgot to wash her dress. Thomas Jefferson was banging out tots like a fiend. Making a banquet out of Sally Hemmings' body he created more kids than he could track. Jefferson kept his black children under lock & key all while singing “Oh Say Can We See.” All his pickaninnies, tall and skinny looked exactly like him and nobody blinked nobody batted a lash seeing these yellow children of Monticello springing everywhere like weeds. They heard Thomas’ cry for freedom turn into bedroom deceits. They watched their father, a boll weevil, feast on fresh drawls like a cotton gin separating seeds. And when they realized he would never, never, never, never, never, never, never, set them free they read his Declaration of Independence they waited for a harmony of coughs they watched this ‘Apostle of the Constitution” and willed bronchitis to drum his lungs they sang hymns to bring on fever yearned for heart attacks or stokes anything to take his last breath. But Jefferson lived & lived & lived & lived & lived & lived. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he said. For his yellow kids, this was just a long-winded speech. people applauded people lauded him a saint people ignored his children in chains. Only when slavery began its Swan Dance unraveling like a hem, did Jefferson finally relent. At last, while on his deathbed, before he peacefully died in his sleep Jefferson & Sally Hemmings’ kids were released. But wait! Stop the presses! Maybe it didn’t happen like that at all! Maybe Sally was fed up with laundry, sex and lies. Sick of the broken promises, maybe Sally finally snapped like an overseer whipping a child's back. Maybe Sally had to go “all Monica” on them all. She wouldn’t be the first to topple a president. Plantation life takes its toll. So maybe Sally took out Jefferson herself having that one final pillow-talk at last.
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pamward

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