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Mary Hemings, Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest child, became the first in her family to gain her freedom. In 1792 she asked to be sold to her common-law husband, white merchant Thomas Bell, who left his considerable property in Charlottesville to their two children, Sarah Jefferson Bell and Robert Washington Bell. Sarah Bell married Jesse Scott, a talented musician, the son of a white man and Annika Cumba, a Pamunkey Indian.
In January 1827, it was Jesse Scott who represented the family at the Monticello dispersal sale, at which he purchased the wife and youngest children of his brother-in-law Joseph Fossett. Mary Hemings Bell lived in the oldest house on Charlottesville’s main street with the Scotts and their sons Robert, James, and Thomas. Father and sons traveled throughout Virginia, providing music for dances. One Charlottesville resident recalled “the famous Scotts” years later: “Such music they made as the gods of Terpsichore will never hear again.”
Robert Scott married into another branch of the Hemings family. His wife, Nancy Colbert Scott, was the granddaughter of two of Elizabeth Hemings’s daughters, Betty Brown and Nance. The Scotts, with their mixed ancestry, occupied a kind of middle ground in Charlottesville. Robert and James Scott attended white schools and, according to one contemporary, their musical talent and “prepossessing appearance and fine manners” gave them social advantages. In 1857 they obtained a kind of legal recognition of this intermediate position between black and white by successfully petitioning the court to be declared “not negroes.” Jefferson’s grandson Thomas J. Randolph vouched for the fact that they had more than three-quarters white ancestry.