The Complicated History Behind Beyoncé’s Discovery About the ‘Love’ Between Her Slave-Owning and Enslaved Ancestors

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2018-08-13 23:30Z by Steven

The Complicated History Behind Beyoncé’s Discovery About the ‘Love’ Between Her Slave-Owning and Enslaved Ancestors


Arica L. Coleman

The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello is pictured on June 16, 2018 in Charlottesville, Va. (Photo by /For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello is pictured on June 16, 2018 in Charlottesville, Va. (Photo by /For The Washington Post via Getty Images) Eze Amos—The Washington Post/Getty Images

With Beyoncé’s appearance on the cover of the September issue of Vogue, the magazine highlights three facets of the superstar’s character for particular focus: “Her Life, Her Body, Her Heritage.” The words she shares are deeply personal, and that last component also offers a window into a complicated and misunderstood dynamic that affects all of American history. While opening up about her family’s long history of dysfunctional marital relationships, she hints at an antebellum relationship that defies that trend: “I researched my ancestry recently,” she stated, “and learned that I come from a slave owner who fell in love with and married a slave.”

She doesn’t elaborate on how she made the discovery or what is known about those individuals, but fans will know that Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a native of Houston whose maternal and paternal forbears hailed from Louisiana and Alabama, respectively. Her characterization of her heritage stands out because those states, like others across the South, had stringent laws and penalties against interracial marriage. In fact, throughout the colonial and antebellum eras, interracial marriage would have been the exception — even though interracial sex was the rule…

Read the entire article here.

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White or Black? The children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings wrestle with racial identity

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing on 2017-11-05 04:29Z by Steven

White or Black? The children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings wrestle with racial identity

Nehemiah Center For Urban Leadership Development
Madison, Wisconsin

Phil Haslanger, Associate Pastor
Memorial United Church of Christ, Madison, Wisconsin

Annette Gordon-Reed

Annette Gordon-Reed, the historian and law professor at Harvard and Radcliff, explored that dilemma in the third annual James Madison Lecture at the Wisconsin State Historical Society on Oct. 11. She brought into focus the choices African-Americans have had to make in deciding whether to “pass” – to be viewed as white even though they are bi-racial.

Hemings’ children were all freed from slavery after [Thomas] Jefferson’s death, the result of promise she extracted from him when they were in Paris in the late 1780s and she could have walked to her own freedom there.

Jefferson and [Sally] Hemings’ son, Eston Hemings Jefferson, brings that dilemma home to Madison. This is where he and his wife and their three children moved in 1852, using Jefferson as his last name and becoming part of the white community in this emerging city.

“Passing for white is a complicated thing,” Gordon-Reed told the standing-room only crowd in the Historical Society Auditorium. “Do you choose for your parents or for your children? Passing is always a poignant story.”

Gordon-Reed is the historian whose worked changed the national consensus around the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. Her 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, shattered decades of wide acceptance of denials from Jefferson’s white descendants that he had fathered children with Hemings…

Read the entire article here.

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Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and the Ways We Talk About Our Past

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, United States, Virginia on 2017-08-26 22:38Z by Steven

Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson and the Ways We Talk About Our Past

The New York Times

Annette Gordon-Reed, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History; Professor of History, Faculty of Arts & Sciences
Harvard University

A photograph of Monticello from the late 1800s. Credit University of Virginia Library

It has been 20 years since the historian Annette Gordon-Reed published “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” a book that successfully challenged the prevailing perceptions of both figures. In a piece for The New York Times Book Review, submitted just before the tragic events in Charlottesville, Va., Gordon-Reed reflects on the complexities that endure in our understanding of Hemings and the language we use to characterize her.

Sally Hemings has been described as “an enigma,” the enslaved woman who first came to public notice at the turn of the 19th century when James Callender, an enemy of the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, wrote with racist virulence of “SALLY,” who lived at Monticello and had borne children by Jefferson. Hemings came back into the news earlier this year, after the Thomas Jefferson Foundation announced plans to restore a space where Hemings likely resided, for a time, at Monticello. A number of news reports as well as comments on social media discussing the plans drew the ire of many readers because they referred to Hemings as Jefferson’s “mistress” and used the word “relationship” to describe the connection between the pair, as if those words inevitably denote positive things. They do not, of course — especially when the word “mistress” is modified by the crucial word “enslaved.”

When I published my first book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” in 1997, most people knew of Hemings from two works: Fawn Brodie’s biography “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History” (1974) and Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel “Sally Hemings” (1979), both of which sought to rescue Hemings’s personhood. More typically, the scholarship written to disprove her connection to Jefferson routinely diminished Hemings’s humanity. The arguments that the story couldn’t be true because Jefferson would never be involved with “a slave girl” and that such a person was too low to have influenced Jefferson recurred in various formulations in historical writings over many years, as if the designation “slave girl” told readers all they needed to know. My first book was designed to expose the inanity of those, and other, arguments. I wrote a second book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” to flesh out Hemings’s personal history…

Read the entire article here.

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The mulatta concubine in diaspora is everywhere.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2016-02-08 01:37Z by Steven

The mulatta concubine in diaspora is everywhere. She is in representations of Thomas Jefferson’s long-term “relationship” with the enslaved Sally Hemings, begun when she was fourteen and he forty-four (see Gordon-Reed, American Controversy). She is the protagonist who emblemizes Cuban national identity in Cirilo Villaverde’s 1882 novel, Cecilia Valdes: Novela de costumbres cubanas. She is allusively present in the fantastical and garish transformation of an enslaved black woman to sexually powerful white (by virtue of makeup) mistress in the Brazilian film Xica! She is remembered as the owner of the infamous maison des esclaves (house of slaves) on Gorée Island, the former Senegalese slave entrepôt and now major slavery tour destination. She is the enslaved Joanna, “immortalized in John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1806 [1796])” (Sharpe, Ghosts, 46). She is the commodity that drove the fancy slave trade in the antebellum United States. She is present in travelers’ descriptions of antebellum New Orleans’s free women of color. She is “that seductive mulatto woman” in colonial Saint-Domingue (Moreau de Saint-Méry, Civilization, 81-89).

Lisa Ze Winters, The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic, (Athens: Georgia University Press, 2016), 3.

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Color Lines: Racial Passing in America

Posted in Arts, Audio, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-01-17 03:03Z by Steven

Color Lines: Racial Passing in America

BackStory with the American History Guys (A program of the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities)
Charlottesville, Virginia

M. H. Kimball portrait of Isaac White and Rosina Downs, two New Orleans slave children, c. 1863. (Library of Congress).

On this episode of BackStory, the Guys will consider how and why Americans throughout the centuries have crossed the lines of racial identity, and find out what the history of passing has to say about race, identity, and privilege in America. We’ll look at stories of African-Americans who passed as white to escape slavery or Jim Crow and find out how the “one-drop rule” enabled one blonde-haired, blue-eyed American to live a double life without ever arousing suspicion. We’ll also explore the story of an African-American musician who pioneered a genre of exotic music with a bejeweled turban and an invented biography, and examine the hidden costs of crossing over.

Guests Include:


  • The Spark of Recognition
    • Historian Carol Wilson tells the story of a New Orleans slave named Sally Miller, who sued for her freedom after a German woman became convinced that Sally was really a long-lost German girl named Salomé Müller.
  • Double Image
    • Historian Martha Sandweiss explains how the one-drop rule enabled a blue-eyed, blonde-haired geologist named Clarence King to lead a second life as a Black Pullman porter, without ever drawing suspicion.
  • “Code-Switching”
    • Listener Johanna Lanner-Cusin, who identifies as black, talks about people’s assumptions about her race, not having experiences similar to darker African Americans, and “qualifying her blackness.”
  • Blood Brothers
    • Historian Annette Gordon-Reed illustrates the fluidity of race with the stories of two sons of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, one of whom passed into white society while the other lived his life as an African-American.
  • High Stakes
    • Sociologist Eva Garroutte tells the story of Sylvester Long, a multiracial man who rose to silent film stardom in the 1920s after adopting the persona of an “authentic” Native American—until it all came crashing down.
  • Passing In, Passing Out
    • Brian Balogh talks with historian Allyson Hobbs about an enormous but overlooked cost of racial passing: leaving one’s family, community, and heritage behind.
  • “Guess Your Ethnicity”
    • Listener Vasanth Subramanian wishes society allowed him to choose his identity. He talks in detail about the prejudices children of immigrants face.
  • Drawing the Line
    • The Guys explain how American slavery practices created racial boundaries, and, at the same time, complicated them.
  • Playing Indian
    • Producer Nina Earnest explores the boundary between passing and performance with the story of John Roland Redd, an African-American organist who donned a bejeweled turban and rewrote his life story to become “Godfather of Exotica” Korla Pandit.

CORRECTION: This show includes a story about Sylvester Long, a man of mixed descent who styled himself as a pure-blooded Native American named Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance. We refer to him as a movie star who published a famous autobiography. In fact, Long Lance published his autobiography first—the popularity of the book catapulted him into movie stardom.

Listen to the podcast (01:05:14) here. Download the podcast here.

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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family [Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2011-06-09 20:42Z by Steven

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family [Review]

The Journal of American History
Volume 98, Issue 1 (2011)
Pages 154-155
DOI: 10.1093/jahist/jar004

Brenda E. Stevenson, Professor of History
University of California, Los Angeles

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. By Annette Gordon-Reed. (New York: Norton, 2008. 802 pp. Cloth, ISBN 978-0-393-06477-3. Paper, ISBN 978-0-393-33776-1.)

Annette Gordon-Reed’s much-lauded book (it has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was a national best seller) is an ambitious attempt to re-create the lives of several generations of one slave family in the American South. Gordon-Reed traces this family from one of their original African ancestors, who arrived in Virginia during the colonial era, through the antebellum decades. This is not just any extended enslaved family, however. Her black and mixed-race subjects are the Hemingses—the founding father Thomas Jefferson’s slaves and family, by marriage and blood.

Building on the research and analysis of her book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997), Gordon-Reed, a legal scholar by training, adds admirably to her primary- and secondary-source research base for this work, carefully synthesizing the historiography descriptive of the social relationships in American slavery and drawing on the rich data and analysis supplied by historians and archeologists at Monticello. Gordon-Reed treats readers to a journey of no short distance (the book is almost seven hundred pages in length!) in which she explores several avenues of possibility that might shed light on the social lives, relationships, and family ties…

Read or purchase the review here.

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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2011-06-09 20:22Z by Steven

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

University of Virginia Press
305 pages
6 x 9
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8139-1833-4

Annette Gordon-Reed, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History; Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; Professor of History
Harvard University

When Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking study was first published, rumors of Thomas Jefferson’s sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings had circulated for two centuries. Among all aspects of Jefferson’s renowned life, it was perhaps the most hotly contested topic. The publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings intensified this debate by identifying glaring inconsistencies in many noted scholars’ evaluations of the existing evidence. In this study, Gordon-Reed assembles a fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged thirty-eight-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.

Friends of Jefferson sought to debunk the Hemings story as early as 1800, and most subsequent historians and biographers followed suit, finding the affair unthinkable based upon their view of Jefferson’s life, character, and beliefs. Gordon-Reed responds to these critics by pointing out numerous errors and prejudices in their writings, ranging from inaccurate citations, to impossible time lines, to virtual exclusions of evidence—especially evidence concerning the Hemings family. She demonstrates how these scholars may have been misguided by their own biases and may even have tailored evidence to serve and preserve their opinions of Jefferson. This updated edition of the book also includes an afterword in which the author comments on the DNA study that later confirmed the Jefferson and Hemngs liaison.

Possessing both a layperson’s unfettered curiosity and a lawyer’s logical mind, Annette Gordon-Reed writes with a style and compassion that are irresistible. Each chapter revolves around a key figure in the Hemings drama, and the resulting portraits are engrossing and very personal. Gordon-Reed also brings a keen intuitive sense of the psychological complexities of human relationships—relationships that, in the real world, often develop regardless of status or race. The most compelling element of all, however, is her extensive and careful research, which often allows the evidence to speak for itself. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy is the definitive look at a centuries-old question that should fascinate general readers and historians alike.

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Passing for Black: Sermon

Posted in History, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, Religion, Slavery, United States on 2011-06-03 04:46Z by Steven

Passing for Black: Sermon

Unitarian Church of Norfolk
Norfolk, Virginia

Dr. Walter Skip Earl


Forty-seven years ago yesterday, on August 28, 1963, before a huge crowd of African and other Americans gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice…


Our reading this morning comes from the jacket (show) previews of Clarence E. Walker’s 2009 University of Virginia press, MONGREL NATION, The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The term “mongrel” is usually used as a derogatory term for “Mixed Race” .

The first quote is from Annette Gordon-Reed, New York Law School and author of THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: An American Family.

America has indeed been a mongrel nation, not just in terms of blood, but in terms of culture and politics, from the very beginning. Walker very rightly challenges the assumption that the Jefferson-Hemings liaison was either unusual or exceptional.

Secondly, from the author himself, Clarence E. Walker, Professor of History at the University of California, Davis and also the author of WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN: An Argument about Afrocentrism.

The debate over the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings rarely rises above the question, “Did they or didn’t they?” But lost in the argument over the existence of such a relationship are equally urgent questions about a history that is more complex, both sexually and culturally, than most of us realize.

(T)he relationship between Jefferson and Hemings must be seen not in isolation but in the broader context of interracial affairs within the plantation complex. Viewed from this perspective, the relationship ..was fairly typical. For many, this is a disturbing realization because it forces us to abandon the idea of American exceptionalism and reexamine slavery in America as part of a long, global history of slaveholders frequently crossing the color line.

More than many other societies—and despite our obvious mixed-race population—our nation has displayed particular reluctance to acknowledge this dynamic….From Jefferson’s time to our own, the general public denied—or remained oblivious to—the possibility of the affair. Historians, too, dismissed the idea, even when confronted with compelling arguments by fellow scholars. It took the DNA finds of 1998 to persuade many (although to this day, doubters remain).

The president’s apologists, both before and after the DNA findings, have constructed an iconic Jefferson that tells us more about their own beliefs—than it does about the interaction between slave owners and slaves. Much more than a search for the facts about two individuals , the debate over Jefferson and Hemings is emblematic of tensions in our society between competing conceptions both of race and of our nation. (underlining is mine)

This sermon is not meant to be a history lesson. Nor is it meant to be a summary of the contents of MONGREL NATION.

Rather, it is my RESPONSE to having read the book. It is my attempt to react to the thesis of Clarence Walker’s latest book within the time frame of these next 15 to 20 minutes. And I appreciate your sharing this with me by listening…

Read the entire sermon here.

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The Enigma Of Jefferson: Mind and Body In Conflict

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Slavery, United States on 2011-01-16 00:32Z by Steven

The Enigma Of Jefferson: Mind and Body In Conflict

The New York Times

Dinitia Smith

For contemporary historians, Thomas Jefferson has always been an enigma, and the new DNA evidence that he fathered at least one child by his young slave Sally Hemings simply deep ens the mystery of the man. On the one hand, Jefferson was the author of some of the most glorious sentences in the English language, his ringing affirmation of the equality of all men in the Declaration of Independence. On the other, he was a slaveholder who wrote some of the vilest sentiments of racism in his only book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1785. Blacks, Jefferson wrote, have “a very strong and disagreeable odor,” they are incapable of uttering more than “a plain narration.” Jefferson also said that racial amalgamation “produces a degradation… to which no one can innocently consent.”

Most historians now believe that his relationship with Hemings probably endured for many years, if not from 1787, when Hemings, then 13 or 14, arrived in Paris as a “nurse” to Jefferson’s daughter.

Now that the new evidence is in, how can the inconsistencies in Jefferson’s character be explained?…

…But how could Jefferson have sustained a relationship with Hemings that may have lasted for 38 years if he thought that black people smelled, that they were stupid and childlike? “In general, in order to retain someone in slavery, you have to dehumanize them,”  said Edmund Morgan, author of “American Slavery, American Freedom: the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.”  “It was a standard thing that went with slavery.” 

Jefferson was also surrounded by examples of sexual relationships between masters and slaves. He had witnessed the relationships of two men he deeply admired, his father-in-law, John Wayles, and his law professor, George Wythe, with enslaved women.

Another reason Jefferson may have been able to reconcile his relationship with Hemings with his opposition to miscegenation, Ms. Gordon-Reed points out in her book, was that Hemings was his wife’s half sister, the daughter of John Wayles and his slave consort. Jefferson had been devastated by his wife’s death, and he had promised her he would never remarry. Perhaps Hemings, who was known to be beautiful, bore some of his wife’s characteristics.

But perhaps most important, Hemings, under Jefferson’s notions of race mixing, may have been in some way “white”  in his eyes. Indeed, in the 1830 census of Monticello, Hemings was listed as white. Jefferson also believed that blacks became “white”  when they had a certain amount of white blood in them, a theory he illustrated once in a complex mathematical chart drawn up in a letter to a friend. “Let ‘h’ and ‘e’ cohabit,”  Jefferson wrote, and “the half of the blood of each will be q/2 + e/2 +a/8 + A/8…”  He concluded that the more white blood they had, the more “the improvement of the blacks in body and mind.” …

Read the entire article here.

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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2009-12-26 01:56Z by Steven

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

W. W. Norton & Company
September 2008
800 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-393-06477-3
6.5 × 9.6 in
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-393-33776-1
816 pages
6.1 × 9.2 in

Annette Gordon-Reed, Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History; Professor of History, Faculty of Arts & Sciences
Harvard University

Winner of the National Book Award and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize

In the mid-1700s the English captain of a trading ship that made runs between England and the Virginia colony fathered a child by an enslaved woman living near Williamsburg. The woman, whose name is unknown and who is believed to have been born in Africa, was owned by the Eppeses, a prominent Virginia family. The captain, whose surname was Hemings, and the woman had a daughter. They named her Elizabeth.

So begins this epic work—named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, Time, the Los Angeles Times,, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a notable book by the New York Times—Annette Gordon-Reed’s “riveting history” of the Hemings family, whose story comes to vivid life in this brilliantly researched and deeply moving work. Gordon-Reed, author of the highly acclaimed historiography Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, unearths startling new information about the Hemingses, Jefferson, and his white family. Although the book presents the most detailed and richly drawn portrait ever written of Sarah Hemings, better known by her nickname Sally, who bore seven children by Jefferson over the course of their thirty-eight-year liaison, The Hemingses of Monticello tells more than the story of her life with Jefferson and their children. The Hemingses as a whole take their rightful place in the narrative of the family’s extraordinary engagement with one of history’s most important figures.

Not only do we meet Elizabeth Hemings—the family matriarch and mother to twelve children, six by John Wayles, a poor English immigrant who rose to great wealth in the Virginia colony—but we follow the Hemings family as they become the property of Jefferson through his marriage to Martha Wayles. The Hemings-Wayles children, siblings to Martha, played pivotal roles in the life at Jefferson’s estate.

We follow the Hemingses to Paris, where James Hemings trained as a chef in one of the most prestigious kitchens in France and where Sally arrived as a fourteen-year-old chaperone for Jefferson’s daughter Polly; to Philadelphia, where James Hemings acted as the major domo to the newly appointed secretary of state; to Charlottesville, where Mary Hemings lived with her partner, a prosperous white merchant who left her and their children a home and property; to Richmond, where Robert Hemings engineered a plan for his freedom; and finally to Monticello, that iconic home on the mountain, from where most of Jefferson’s slaves, many of them Hemings family members, were sold at auction six months after his death in 1826.

As The Hemingses of Monticello makes vividly clear, Monticello can no longer be known only as the home of a remarkable American leader, the author of the Declaration of Independence; nor can the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president have been expunged from history until very recently, be left out of the telling of America’s story. With its empathetic and insightful consideration of human beings acting in almost unimaginably difficult and complicated family circumstances, The Hemingses of Monticello is history as great literature. It is a remarkable achievement.

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