Home of the Hemingses

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The house the Hemingses built. Source: afagen hide caption

itoggle caption Source: afagen

Annette Gordon-Reed's book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, would be remarkable even if it weren't so incredibly readable. It's a weighty tome — but every word makes Virginia, Monticello, and the Hemings family leap off the page. What is so fascinating — albeit bizarrely horrible — is the incredible complexity of the lies that slaveowners had to buy into in order to perpetuate the institution. Just one example: Sally Hemings, the slave with whom Thomas Jefferson conceived seven children, came to Monticello by way of his wife Martha. Sally's mother, Elizabeth, had a longstanding sexual relationship with Martha's father — who fathered six of her children, the youngest of whom, was Sally. Sally became the property of her half-sister, Martha, upon the death of their father, and went with Martha to her new home, with Jefferson. So — consider the insanity of an institution that allowed Sally to be owned by Martha, and then father children with Martha's husband after her death. That's just one of the revelations that Gordon-Reed uncovers in her book — it's a portrait of the Hemings family, but it's also a portrait of slavery in Virginia before, during, and after the revolution. She'll be talking with us today — about the web of relationships that bound the Jeffersons and the Hemingses together, and the shameful institution that made it so.

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I believe that President Jefferson felt the conflict created by the life and world he was raised in and taught to believe in, and the life he experienced traveling in France. His understanding of philosophy both ancient and modern mixed with his internal conflict to produce the Constitution and The Declaration of Independence.

Sent by Christopher M. Brown | 6:31 PM | 9-22-2008

I was interested in the discussion about some of Sally Hemmings children passing as white. I hadn't realized they were only 1/8th black. I am 3/4 Japanese and 1/4 black, and my daughter is 7/8 Japanese and 1/8 black. We live in Hawaii, but she looks like she could be from Japan. As much as I want her to be aware of her African-American heritage, there is no way anyone outside of our family will ever regard her as black. I can easily imagine that Sally Hemming's children probably barely looked African at all. Anyone who is 7/8 one race and 1/8 another cannot reasonably be expected to solely identify themselves at that 1/8, and yet if that 1/8 is black and the other 7/8 is white, in America they are African-American, period. In a family like mine, that makes no sense at all, but gives us a lot to think about.

Sent by Michelle Takemoto | 7:00 PM | 9-22-2008

I have a very similar story in my family history. In my case it was my great great grandfather who was fathered by the slave holder. Through an internet research I found and I contacted some of my distant relatives. Everything was fine until I traced my lineage for them. Even though My great great grandfather is listed in the 1860 census as the slave holder's son, they absolutely refused the connection and cut off all contact. I honestly did not believe that it would make a difference, but I was so wrong. It seems that even in this new century people refuse to accept what was a common occurrence at that time. Fortunately my cousins had already transferred some very important information and documents to me before the connection was severed.

Now whenever I come across a genealogy website with his name listed, I fill in all relevant information. Sometimes it stays and other times it is deleted. They may be able to erase my input, but they cannot erase my great great grandfather from the U.S. census records.

Sent by Traci | 1:23 AM | 9-23-2008

What a wonderful interview. The personal side of American slavery has always fascinated me, and the fact the men like Thomas Jefferson willing enslaved his own children nauseates me. I can't wait to buy this book. I recommend the memoir of Mary Chestnut to anyone who is interested in reading about what white women plantation owners experienced when observing all the mulatto children fathered by their sons and husbands. As a white American I send my heartfelt condolences and apologies to Traci who posted earlier. They are much the poorer for not getting to know and value you. Consider it their loss.

Sent by Anne Sterling | 2:18 PM | 9-23-2008

We all know it was common practice for the slave master to go to the slave quarters and be with the female slaves, so why is it so hard for the "other part of the family" to believe Thomas could have fathered at least one of these children if not all? We're all mixed with something, it is what it is!!

Sent by LaVigna Jackson | 10:57 AM | 9-25-2008