Seeing Past the Slave to Study the Person
When, 11 years ago, DNA evidence convinced most experts that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, many people talked about what the discovery said about Jefferson. Yet few seemed all that interested in what it said about the young girl he owned.
Annette Gordon-Reed was one of those few. Her 1997 book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (University of Virginia Press), examined how historians throughout the decades consistently discounted the rumored relationship, ignoring the oral testimony of black descendants. Since then she has combed legal records, diaries, farm books, letters, wills, old newspapers, archives, relatives’ memories and more to rescue not only Sally but the entire Hemings clan from obscurity.
Their story is contained in her book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (W. W. Norton), to be released on Monday. In nearly 800 pages she follows four generations of Hemingses, starting with their origins in Virginia in the 1700s and continuing through 1826, when Jefferson died and his home, Monticello, was put up for sale.
“I wanted to tell the story of this family in a way not done before” so that readers can “see slave people as individuals,” Ms. Gordon-Reed said, sitting on a bench at the slavery exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, where she will be speaking on Oct. 14 with Brent Staples, an editorial writer for The New York Times. Looking down from the balcony, visitors can see glass cabinets holding dozens of busts and statues, including a small one of Jefferson. On another shelf is a bronze cast of Lincoln’s face and hands.
When it comes to blacks in America, Ms. Gordon-Reed said, social history has trumped biography. “We tend to think of group identity instead of individuals,” she said, which leads us to “miss the complexity of black lives.”
“Robert, James, Elizabeth and Sally are not concepts but people,” she added, referring to the Hemings family.
Ms. Gordon-Reed turns over the decisions that Sally Hemings and her family made throughout their lives, examining them from every side as if they were a Rubik’s Cube. She refuses to accept generalizations and easy conclusions; for instance, she rejects the assertion that all sex between master and slave must be viewed as rape, saying it strips black women of the singularity of their life stories and their dignity.
As Ms. Gordon-Reed spoke about how profoundly strange life in Monticello must have been, a large monitor played a short history of slavery in New York City.
Sally Hemings’s father was John Wayles, a slave owner and the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. After his death, all the Hemingses eventually came to Monticello.
It is almost impossible to put ourselves in their places, Ms. Gordon-Reed said. As she writes of James Hemings in her book, “A man is born into a society that allows his half-sister and her husband to hold him as a slave.” Does he grieve when Martha dies, she asks, or when her child — his niece — is buried? Did he and his brother resent the fact that the man who controlled their lives inherited the fortune that — as John Wayles’s sons — would have been theirs had they been born free white men? And what did Jefferson, who gave his enslaved servants a relative amount of freedom and sometimes considered himself a friend, suppose of their feelings?
“The connections between these two men are so divorced from anything resembling what could be recognized today as ‘normal’ human relations that they can be recovered only in the imagination and, even then, only with great difficulty,” she writes of James Hemings and Jefferson.
And then there is Sally, light-skinned and beautiful, who apparently bore a remarkable resemblance to her dead half-sister.
Ms. Gordon-Reed tries to understand why the pregnant Sally Hemings made the decision to return with Jefferson to Virginia from Paris, where the law declared her a free person and where there was a community of free Africans.
She suggests that an insecure existence in a foreign country, away from her family, would be a frightening prospect for a pregnant teenager. Jefferson promised to free their children in exchange for her coming back to Virginia; she would have a home and a powerful protector.
All four of her children were later freed; three of them passed as white.
Joseph Ellis, a Jefferson scholar who had been wary of the claims about Hemings before the DNA tests, called Ms. Gordon-Reed’s book “the best study of a slave family ever written.”
Ever since she was a child in Conroe, Tex., Ms. Gordon-Reed has been interested in Thomas Jefferson. In the third grade she read a children’s biography of him that showed him as a child with a slave his own age. “Jefferson was smart,” she said, but the black boy in that book “was a person of no consequence and no curiosity.”
The depiction bothered her, she recalled: “That was supposed to be a stand-in for me.”
Before integration, her mother was an English teacher at a black high school; Ms. Gordon-Reed went to the better-financed white elementary school. She was the only black in her first-grade class. “Delegations of people would stand in the doorway,” she remembered, as if they were thinking, “Let’s see how this experiment is going.”
Though she was mostly accepted, she said, she did break out in hives, probably from the stress. The following year the schools were legally integrated.
At 14 she read Fawn Brodie’s “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History,” about his relationship with Hemings. It was a book widely disdained by Jefferson scholars at the time.
Ms. Gordon-Reed’s fascination with history continued at Dartmouth, but by the time she graduated academic jobs were hard to come by. So she ended up going to Harvard Law School, where she met her husband, now a civil court judge in Brooklyn.
“I always wanted to come to New York and be a famous writer,” she said, recalling how in Conroe she would read copies of The New Yorker. Now she teaches at New York Law School and in the history department of Rutgers University in Newark.
More than histories, Ms. Gordon-Reed said she expects a gold rush of fiction about the Hemings family. “We don’t have any letters from her,” she said of Sally. “She is a canvas that people can paint on.”
Ms. Gordon-Reed plans to write a second volume that will follow the family up through the late 19th century.
About four years ago, Ms. Gordon-Reed’s family gathered for a reunion for the first time. She had doggedly researched Sally Hemings’s ancestors and progeny, but realized that she knew little about her own.
“I’ve started thinking about my family a lot more,” she said. “Maybe that’s the next project for me.”
Years ago a state highway was built to run right through her family’s cemetery in Livingston, Tex., so all the graves were moved, and a record was made of every one.
“That,” she said, “would be a starting place.”