As the end of National Women’s History Month approaches, I would like to highlight a lesser-known female figure of the United States. Her name is Sarah “Sally” Hemings (1773-1835.)
Slavery in America was prevalent from1776 to 1865. It is estimated that the total slave population in America (primarily in the South) eventually reached 4,000,000. Hemmings was one of those slaves. Over time, she has become an important historical figure for both the African American and female communities alike, due to her close connections to certain prominent historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson.. Much like her life story, her bedroom at former President Jefferson’s house was lost to history and hidden away for over a century.
Jefferson served as the third president of the United States from 1801-1809, 60 years before the 16th president of the United States (1861-1865), Abraham Lincoln, signed the Emancipation Proclamation that began the freeing of slaves.
Jefferon’s home, Monticello, is located in Charlottesville, Va. He lived there with his family and enslaved over 600 people there. Hemings was one of the enslaved people working for Jefferson. (You can learn more about these men, women and children at https://www.monticello.org/slavery/?ref=homeblock)
In 1941, the caretakers of Monticello turned an unsuspecting small room attached to Jefferson’s bedroom into a public restroom for tourists. It underwent an archaeological investigation in 2017 after historians suspected that the bathroom was built on top of Hemings’ bedroom. Historians were able to pinpoint the bedroom based on a description from Jefferson’s grandson.
Jefferson kept meticulous records of his expenses, including those related to his enslaved workers, but Hemings is rarely mentioned. This leads historians to believe that there was a relationship between them. It is thought that Jefferson was the father of her six children, because genetic links were found between their individual descendants from testing completed in 1998.
Monticello historians took steps to restore Hemings’ room in hopes to humanize her and bring light to what she must have gone through in that small room. At a conference hosted by Monticello on slavery and freedom, Joshua DuBois, a faith adviser to the Obama White House, said he hopes Monticello can be, “a place of reflection, a place to remind us of our resiliency, also to mourn to some extent.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/for-decades-they-hid-jeffersons-mistress-now-monticello-is-making-room-for-sally-hemings/2017/02/18/d410d660-f222-11e6-8d72-263470bf0401_story.html)
As of 2018, the Sally Hemings room and exhibit is open to the public at Monticello. This space provides visitors with a unique opportunity to learn about Hemings’ life in a more personal way, but also serves as a testimony of her life and so many women like her who have been lost to history. This is an important part of National Women’s History Month: to not only recognize the important events or achievements of women, but to truly appreciate the life stories of those women.