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Harriet Hemings (1801-unknown) was the only surviving daughter of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. She grew up with her three brothers and a large extended family at Monticello. Like her mother, Hemings was enslaved by her father, and she worked in the textile workshop as a wool spinner. She “ran away” with Jefferson’s knowledge when she was twenty-one years old in 1822, at which point she moved to Washington, D.C., where she started a family and passed into white society as a free woman.
As part of the prominent and extensive enslaved Hemings family, Harriet Hemings lived and worked in and around Monticello. Her younger brother Madison Hemings left his account of growing up alongside her:
My brothers, sister Harriet and myself were used alike. They were put to some mechanical trade at the age of fourteen. Till then we were permitted to stay about the “great house,” and only required to do such light work as going on errands. Harriet learned to spin and weave in a little factory on the home plantation.1
This “factory” was the textile workshop where Harriet Hemings was working at the age of fourteen according to Jefferson’s records.2 This was a typical position for enslaved girls her age at Monticello before they were either trained in a skill or sent into the fields to work.
Jefferson was “not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection” to Hemings and her brothers. Although they worked like other enslaved people with positions in and around the household, Madison Hemings wrote that they “were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long and were measurably happy. We were always permitted to be with our mother, who was well used.” Harriet Hemings and her brothers knew that one day they would be free because their father had promised to free Sally Hemings’s children when they turned twenty-one years old.3
Several accounts mention Harriet Hemings’s departure from Monticello. According to Edmund Bacon, Jefferson authorized him to give Harriet fifty dollars and stage fare to her destination.4 Like many enslaved families, the Hemingses straddled the color line in a world darkly divided by archaic notions of race. Harriet Hemings was described as very light skinned and beautiful, and the majority of her ancestry was European. Seven of her eight great-grandparents were ethnically European and only one of her great-grandparents was from Africa. But the laws of slavery dictated that Hemings was enslaved from birth — just as her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother had been. Once free, her fair complexion gave her the option of becoming a part of white society. In 1873 Madison Hemings left the only known account of his sister’s life after Monticello:
Harriet married a white man in good standing in Washington City. ... She raised a family of children, and so far as I know they were never suspected of being tainted with African blood in the community where she lived or lives. I have not heard from her for ten years, and do not know whether she is dead or alive. She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, to assume the role of a white woman, and by her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that her identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered.5
Although Hemings left Monticello for freedom, she also left her family, with whom she seemingly lost touch over the years as she created a new identity for herself. As the enslaved daughter of an American president who stood for liberty and equality, Harriet Hemings personally lived a great contradiction that pervades American history.
- 1. Madison Hemings, “Life Among the Lowly,” Pike County Republican, March 13, 1873 (hereafter cited as Hemings, "Life").
- 2. Farm Book, 1774-1824, page 172, by Thomas Jefferson [electronic edition], Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003).
- 3. Hemings, “Life.”
- 4. Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862), 110. See also Bear, Jefferson at Monticello (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967), 102.
- 5. Hemings, “Life.”