Born in 1773, Sally Hemings was the slave of Thomas Jefferson—the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States. Since the early 1800s, it has been speculated that Hemings had a sexual relationship with Jefferson and that he fathered her six children. This claim was later substantiated and accepted by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.
Hemings’ mother Betty was half-White, or “mulatto,” making Sally three-quarters White, or “quadroon.” Due to the one-drop rule, Sally was a slave since birth, though her master was also her father. She acted as an attendant to her White half-sister Martha, who later married Thomas Jefferson.
Once Martha died, Sally and Jefferson appeared to have continued a relationship until Jefferson’s death. The relationship had never been substantiated until DNA evidence linked their lineage in 1998. It was not uncommon at the time for prominent slave owners to have sexual unions with their female slaves, particularly once they had become widowers. However, since Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers, and was known to be vocal about his belief that Blacks were biologically inferior, their relationship makes for compelling history.
Jefferson’s daughter, who biologically was Hemings’ niece, granted Hemings unofficial freedom once she reached old age. Some of her children, all of whom were one-eighth Black, moved North and “passed” for White, while others remained within Black society. Through this controversial interracial relationship, a Black bloodline can trace its ancestry all the way back to the Declaration of Independence.
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