For the rest of the nation, Thomas Jefferson’s death on the 4th of July, 1826, was a time to mourn. Unlike nearly any other, save George Washington himself, no other one person personified the creation of America like Jefferson. He was, after all, the author of the Declaration of the Independence and the country’s third president. His deal to buy the Louisiana Territory from the French in 1804 doubled the size of the fledgling United States. In between all that, he got the country’s economy under control.
But for some people, Jefferson’s death had been a day they had long been anticipating and preparing for. That event would set into action a chain of events that would forever alter their families. With some very careful planning — and a good deal of luck — they just might be able to bend the inevitable event to their own considerable advantage. For them, it would mean the difference between living free or living enslaved.
My wife’s ancestors were among those who had been waiting for that day for years.
Promises made; Initiative Taken
Over his lifetime, Jefferson owned some 600 people, divided among his estate at Monticello and other properties he owned They did everything. Not only was Monticello a standard plantation in the way we think of it today, growing wheat and tobacco, it produced nearly everything needed for agricultural work and the maintenance of his mansion. And besides that, Jefferson maintained a retinue of enslaved workers to assist him during his duties abroad as minister to France, secretary of state, vice president and then president. These enslaved people planted, of course. They also made nails, wove fabric, baked the finest French delicacies, make barrels and more.
But most of all, Jefferson prized them for one thing: producing children.
“I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm,” Jefferson said. “What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”
So despite his belief that white and Black people should live entirely separately, and that enslaved Black people should be returned to Africa or to someplace in the Caribbean if they were emancipated, it’s perhaps not too shocking that he also participated in the so-called “natural increase” of his own enslaved population. It was, after all, an incredibly profitable thing to do, if not also incredibly problematic.
When he undertook sexual relations with Sally Hemings, she was no older than 14 years old. We know this because she was in Paris at the time, and expecting his child. She had the legal right, under French law, to sue for her freedom and remain in Paris when Jefferson was about to return to Virginia in 1789. She didn’t. Instead, she used her unique position to negotiate directly with Jefferson for freedom — for the children she and Jefferson shared. He agreed, but only that their children would be freed upon his death. And he never consented to the same for Sally herself.
Of their four children who survived Jefferson, two were indeed granted freedom upon his death: Madison and Eston Hemings. The other two — Beverly (a son) and Harriet — had run away earlier and their father had tacitly allowed it by not pursuing them.
A handful of others had been freed by Jefferson either in his lifetime or according to his will upon his death. During his life, he released Sally’s brothers Robert and James Hemings. James was a celebrated chef who negotiated for his own freedom.
Upon Jefferson’s death, his will also called for the emancipation of:
- Joseph Fossett: son of Mary Hemings and my wife’s fifth-great-uncle (more about him and his family in moment)
- Burwell Colbert: son of Betty Hemings Brown and my wife’s fourth-great-grandfather (yes, there was some marriage between cousins)
- John Hemings: a brother of Sally Hemings and my wife’s sixth-great-uncle
Another Hemings, James, the son of Critta Hemings Bowles (note: not the same James as the chef), had also run away after being harshly treated, and was also not pursued. Aside from them, none of the other 600-some people he had owned ever knew freedom thanks to the very author of Independence.
Now that he was dead, things were about to change.
The Story of Sally’s Big Sister
By now, most people have at least heard of Sally Hemings and her relationship to Thomas Jefferson. Fewer people realize that Sally was just one member of an entire extended family that had been living alongside the Jeffersons at Monticello. Her mother, Elizabeth (or Betty) had come to Monticello with her 12 (!) children, of whom Mary, born in 1753, was the eldest. Sally, born 20 years later, was third from the youngest.
When Jefferson was sent to Paris to serve as the minister to France in 1784, he made sure to take the very young Sally along with him. For some reason, he wasn’t as interested in taking Mary. But Thomas Bell, a well-to-do shopkeeper in the center of Charlottesville, had taken an interest in Mary for some reason. He asked Jefferson if he could, er, borrow her. Jefferson agreed.
It’s hard to say for certain what happened next. In modern parlance, it would be called rape, strictly speaking, as a person who is enslaved cannot give consent. But in another way, it doesn’t seem to have been quite like that. Thomas Bell and Mary had two children together: Sarah (my wife’s fourth-great-grandmother) and Robert Washington Bell (her fifth-great-uncle). And being together must have been better than being at the great Monticello, because upon Jefferson’s return, Mary asked if she could remain with Bell.
Jefferson agreed, but he wouldn’t make it easy. He allowed Mary to keep her two youngest children, the ones she shared with Bell. But her four older children, fathered by white workers at Monticello, would have to remain there. A real-life Sophie’s choice. But she took the offer. Whether she did it because she knew that at least some of her children would remain free, or whether she truly loved Bell, it’s impossible to know. We do know that she and Bell lived as man and wife — she was described as his common-law wife, and their children were recognized as his own.
I often wonder what was going through Bell’s head. By rights, he didn’t have to free Mary — and technically, he didn’t. But he didn’t have to treat her as a white woman, either. He could have kept her status as enslaved, and not recognized their children as his own. Instead, he specifically wrote them into his will, ensuring they would inherit his property. I’m left to conclude there must have been affection. Did he not take the final step of freeing her for some sort of legal ramification — for instance, a few years later, people freed from slavery were required to leave the state? I don’t know. It’s hard to understand the the thinking that comes into play when people are rendered property.
Crisis Equals Danger Plus A Turning Point
Despite Jefferson’s many accomplishments, by the time he died, he was considerably in debt — about $2 million worth, in today’s dollars. As a result, his death meant that many of his assets would have to be sold off in order to raise money to pay off what he owed to his creditors. And in the time of slavery, that meant the selling of people.
“Will be sold, on the fifteenth of January, at Monticello, in the county of Albemarle, the whole of the residue of the personal estate of Thomas Jefferson, dec., consisting of 130 Valuable Negroes,” started the notice advertising the auction. They were the star attraction at a sale that also consisted of furniture, paintings and a marble bust of the former president. The date of the sale was slated for Jan. 6, 1827.
It wasn’t just local plantation owners who made the trek up to Monticello for the sale, though. Among those who came to the auction to bid on the enslaved people were none other than Sally’s niece Sarah Bell, by now married to Jesse Scott, a violinist who led a local dance band. But she wasn’t there to look for domestic help. She wanted to restore her family.
I admit I’m no expert in home-scale economics of the early 1800s, but I imagine even respected musicians local musicians in that day weren’t much better off than they are in our day. I don’t get the impression that the Scott family was hurting for money, but I see nothing to suggest that they were what we might call wealthy, either. But no matter. When it came down to it, there was one thing that mattered more than anything else, and it was this: freedom.
Jesse and Sarah Scott nearly went bankrupt buying as many people in Sarah’s family out of slavery as they could. Joseph Fossett, Sarah’s brother, had been freed through the execution of Jefferson’s will. However, his wife and their eight children were not — a problem Sarah and Jesse Scott wanted to remedy. They couldn’t afford to buy the entire family, but they did have enough funding to purchase Joseph’s wife, Edy, and two of their children, for $505. Over time, and through careful saving and the help of the community, they were able to buy three more of their children out of slavery as well.
Eventually, the Fossetts would make their way to Cincinnati, where two of the Fossett sons would become well-known caterers. The Scott family would remain near Monticello, where some of them live to this day.
Not White, Not Black, Not Native: “Not Negro”
But even buying their own family out of slavery didn’t end the nightmare. Because Thomas Bell had never taken the step of emancipating Mary Hemings or his children by her, both Mary and their daughter, Sarah, were legally enslaved. It didn’t matter that he considered them to be free, or that the community they lived in interacted with them as though they were. Mary had been born enslaved, and had given birth to Sarah enslaved, so Sarah was also enslaved.
Meanwhile, her husband, Jesse Scott had a race problem of his own. His exact origins are lost to history, but stories past down tell us that his father had been of English descent, while his mother belonged to the Pamunkey American Indian tribe. While this didn’t bring the same legal questions that enslavement did, it also placed him on the margins of white society, and clouded the future of the children he shared with Sarah.
For that reason, their son, Robert (my wife’s third-great-grandfather) made a rather peculiar request of the courts in 1857. Given that his ancestry was a hodgepodge of white, Black and Native American, he argued that it wasn’t truly correct to classify him as “Negro” on government documents. The term “mulatto,” used for people of mixed-race ancestry, also didn’t seem appropriate, as there had been so much white ancestry in the family. In truth, it could well have been the family’s association with Jefferson that really made the difference. Whatever the true reason, the court ruled that the Scott family was not white, not Black, not even mulatto — they were officially “not Negro.”
Being declared “not Negro” made an immense difference in their lives. Now, they could attend public schools. They were listed as white on census forms. In large part, they held the same rights as their white neighbors.
But it was a precarious position as well. Being “not negro” could only endure so long as the people who beheld them saw them as such. If they appeared too dark, if their features looked a little too Black, they stood to be knocked off their higher standing and pitched back into the morass of slavery and Blackness. That was certainly a concern up to and during the Civil War, but it endured long after the fear of slavery ended.
Generations later, pressure remained on family members to marry lighter-skinned people. The phenomena of colorism has been well-research and documented by people who know much more about it than I do, and if you want to understand it well, I recommend you check out their research. I will say I can easily see how the idea that only marrying light-skinned people is imperative to protect the family took such a strong hold in my wife’s family line.
And of course, such things can have devastating consequences, as it happened when my wife’s grandmother fell in love with a darker-skinned man. Her family couldn’t approve, so she left them to be with him in Boston.
A Peculiar Legacy
Slavery has been called many things: America’s original sin, its peculiar institution. It’s all those things and more. It is, in my opinion, one of the two greatest evils in the world, along with outright genocide. Nothing else plumbs the depth of the human spirit quite as well, touching on every worst thing we are capable of.
There are some who will argue that America’s experience with slavery isn’t unique, and that’s certainly true. It’s a heartbreaking truth that slavery has existed throughout recording history until today in many forms. And even when it was legal in America, it existed in other places as well. In fact, the place that saw greatest import of kidnapped Africans was not the United States at all, but Brazil. The next greatest number went to the islands of the Caribbean.
But in many ways, the U.S. was unique with its slavery. We tore ourselves apart over slavery. We wrote ourselves into existence with a promise of freedom while pretending our enslaved population didn’t make a mockery of the words. And slavery created the underpinnings of an economic and social system that in many ways endures to this day. We have not yet dared to reckon with it. And many people howl like stuck pigs if anyone dares to try.
And even the story of my wife’s family is hardly unique, aside from the fact that we can know it because of their proximity to an American president. For the vast majority of people descended from enslaved families, their ancestral stories go unknown. Their great-grandmothers and great-grandmothers lived and died and toiled and hoped and loved and grieved just like all of us do. But their names, their particular struggles, their brave stands and their heartbreaks have gone untold. It’s desperately unfair.
And doubly unfair that what’s left to us are the stories of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison and the other founders who owned them. They form our origin story, while in truth, the people who enabled them to have the time, wealth and energy to pursue such things were the ones who did all the hard work and only received punishment and pain in return.