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Keeping Families Together: In Slavery & in Freedom

The struggle to unite and keep families together is illustrated again and again by the stories of Monticello's enslaved people. The records in Plantation Management reveal the efforts of enslaved men and women to preserve their marriages. In 1805 and 1806, for example, two men, who had what are known as "abroad" spouses, asked Jefferson to purchase their wives from other owners. Another man asked to be sold, so that he would not be separated from his wife, who belonged to a departing brickmason. These men succeeded in their goals, for which they had long been appealing. But there may well have been unsuccessful requests which did not make it into the historical record.

The story of the family of Elizabeth Hemings's oldest daughter reveals some of the ways that slavery threatened family integrity as well as the means African Americans used to resist family separation. In 1787, while Thomas Jefferson was absent in France as American minister, a white merchant in Charlottesville, Thomas Bell, leased a slave from Monticello. Thirty-four-year-old Mary Hemings was a domestic servant in Jefferson's household and had accompanied the family to Williamsburg and Richmond when he was governor. By 1787, she had four children: Daniel (b. 1772), Molly (b. 1777), Joseph (b. 1780), and Elizabeth, or Betsy (b. 1783).

Mary Hemings and her children lived in Bell's house on Main Street until 1792, when she took a significant step. She asked to be sold to Bell, who was now her common-law husband and the father of her two youngest children, Sarah and Robert. Jefferson, unwilling to part with all her children, gave his superintendent "power to dispose of Mary according to her desire, with such of her younger children as she chose." We know nothing of the circumstances of Mary Hemings Bell's painful decision. We only know that Thomas Bell paid Jefferson £115 for Mary, Sarah, and Robert and soon freed them all.

While their mother and half-siblings lived in freedom in Charlottesville and inherited Thomas Bell's considerable estate, twelve-year-old Joseph and nine-year-old Betsy remained in slavery at Monticello more than two miles away (Jefferson had already given Daniel and Molly away to relatives). Nevertheless Mary Hemings Bell continued to be an important presence in the lives of her still-enslaved children and grandchildren, and there is every indication that this separation caused no weakening of the ties that bound this family together.


These ties were especially important in 1827, when more than a hundred Monticello slaves were sold at auction, including seven of Mary Hemings Bell's grandchildren. You can learn about their fates and that of her daughter Betsy by clicking on Buying One's Children, Peter Fossett, and Betsy Hemmings. Read of other ways African Americans sought to "bring their children out of Egypt" into freedom and of how we learn about family through studying free registers and runaway advertisements.

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