By Kim Hunter
Sally Heming’s babies’ daddy was born April 13, 1743 and grew up to be the third president of the United States after virtually single handedly drafting the Declaration of Independence and practicing law where he defended what little rights freed slaves had in the 18th Century. This was more than paradoxical because Sally Heming’s babies’ daddy owned Sally Hemings and her babies. In fact, he owned most of the people related to Sally Hemings that weren’t born on the African continent.
You can find out all about this in a really thick, intriguing, meticulously documented work of nonfiction called “The Hemings of Monticello: An American Family” by Annette Gordon-Reed (Norton, 2008) to be found at fine independent sellers of new and/or used books near you.
Part of the reason the book is so thick is that the relationship between Hemings and her babies’ daddy was so convoluted, at once extraordinary and utter typical. It was typical in that white slave masters frequently raped enslaved black women and children were born from the attacks. The third president of the United States, impregnated Sally when she was about 14 years old. Part of what was unusual about this case was that the babies’ daddy took Hemings to Paris where slavery wasn’t recognized and she almost stayed and became free. The slave master told her that her children would be free if she came back to the U.S with him, so, thinking she would sacrifice her freedom for her children’s freedom, she returned to slavery in the U.S.
There were myriad other machinations in the exceedingly tangled relationship between Sally Hemings and third president of the United States. She, for example, was the half-sister of the President’s wife. While her children were not freed as promised, they were giving relatively better work that most of the other African Americans held in bondage. Their positions as house slaves and, I suspect, their slave master’s need to keep the relationship discreet as possible, afforded Sally access to materials goods rarely possessed by enslaved people.
This story and others like it resonate today not just because promulgators of lies and “alternative facts” want to revise US history as romanticized fantasy, but because African Americans have unearthed these stories to integrate the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
Previous to the truth-telling through DNA that proved what we many of us knew, the DAR was an all-white and quite reactionary group. In 1939, they blocked the legendary diva Marian Anderson from performing at the DAR Constitution Hall because she was black. (The DAR did relent and change their racist policies after 75,000 people attended what amounted to protest concert to hear Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.)
This causes me to recall the famous quote by the author and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” We should remember that as we commemorate the 274th birthday of Sally Hemings’ babies’ daddy. Next year’s 275th commemoration will, of course be bigger and so we can all expect the story of her and her offspring will get even more attention.