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Bringing Children Out of Egypt

"It was around Beverly Gray's kitchen table in Chillicothe, Ohio, that I first heard the term "bringing children out of Egypt."  It was used in describing the deliberate behavior of enslaved women to gain freedom for their children.  Bev Gray told me that "children could be brought out of Egypt or slavery" by having a father who could and would free them, or by having skin light enough not to appear black.

Bev's comment set my thinking of enslaved women on its head.  In my mind, only Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth had such agency.  Sally Hemings, Liberator.... A novel concept, to say the least. Those without power exercising it, and those with power letting it seep away through sexual acts they were privileged to have simply because they were in power." -- Dianne Swann-Wright

A number of Madison Hemings's female descendants are fascinated by the most evident moment of choice in Sally Hemings's life.   Why did she leave freedom in Paris to return to slavery in Virginia?  By her son's account, she refused to leave France until Jefferson promised her "extraordinary privileges" and "made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years.  In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia."

While we might find it hard to imagine making such a choice based on the fates of one's unborn children, Sally Hemings may have felt she was part of a continuum.  Madison Hemings used the same term, "concubine," for both his mother and his grandmother Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings.  If, through her connection to John Wayles, Betty Hemings had brought her children from the fields to the great house, could she, Sally, take her own one step further and bring them out of Egypt?  Her sister Mary achieved this for some of her children when she formed a quasi-conjugal relationship with the white merchant who hired her in 1787.  Thomas Bell, described by Thomas Jefferson as a "man remarkable for his integrity," freed Mary Hemings, acknowledged his two children by her, and left them his substantial estate.

Sally Hemings had partially accomplished her mission by 1822, when her oldest children Beverly and Harriet shed their slave identities and quietly left Monticello, evidently with Jefferson's blessing. Although no document granted Sally Hemings her own freedom, she was evidently given "her time" by Jefferson's daughter Martha Randolph.  She lived to see a grandchild born in a house owned by her family.  As property herself, she had little to give to her children, but she had negotiated to give them back what her enslaved condition had taken from them--their freedom.  While the other men freed by Jefferson's will were in their forties and fifties, Madison and Eston Hemings began their adult lives as free men.

Adapted from Lucia Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright, "Bonds of Memory: Identity and the Hemings Family," in Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civil Culture, ed. Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville, 1999), pp. 161-183.


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