estones

On the Hemings Children

A while back I posted about how Sally Hemings’s children should stop being treated as a faceless monolith and should start being treated as individuals, so here’s some info on them. There were four surviving children, all of whom were house slaves until their twenties. While under Virginia’s law of you-are-what-your-mother-is they were enslaved, before the age of the One Drop Rule, being less than one-quarter black, they were also considered “legally white”, and were prepared throughout their lives to eventually enter the white world. According to Madison Hemings, when it came to Jefferson’s role as their father: “He was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection to us children. We were the only children of his by a slave woman. He was affectionate toward his white grandchildren, of whom he had fourteen, twelve of whom lived to manhood and womanhood.”

Unlike other Hemingses, Sally either chose, or more likely was not allowed to, name any of them after the other members of the Hemings family. All of the children were named after people important to Jefferson.

William Beverley Hemings (1798 - unknown)

Named after the man who opened the west to Virginia, Beverley was the oldest son and the one we know the least about. Growing up, he was put under the patronage of his uncle John Hemings to learn carpentry. To be shaped like Jefferson, he also learned music and also became interested in ballooning. In 1822, at age twenty-three he ran away from Monticello (two years past the promised date of freedom) to Washington, and Jefferson purposely chose not to pursue. There he recreated his life as a white man. In Maryland he married an unknown white woman, where they had one known daughter. Beverley eventually cut off contact with his black family, and that was where he became lost to history.

Harriet Hemings (1801 - unknown)

The only surviving daughter, Harriet was named after an older sister who died in childhood. Instead of becoming a maid to one of Jefferson’s granddaughters, Harriet was taught by her mother to spin and weave, as well as other domestic tasks expected from women of her time. She left at age twenty-one, in 1822 to join her brother Beverley, and Jefferson purposely chose not to pursue (instructing his overseer instead to give her $50), making her the only woman Jefferson ever “freed”. There, she passed for white, married an unnamed white man, had several children, and cut off contact with her black family.

James Madison Hemings (1805 - 1877)

Named by Dolley Madison (who had promised Sally a gift in exchange for naming her son after her husband, but according to Madison Hemings Dolley never kept her promise). Like Beverley, he was apprenticed to his uncle and taught music. At almost twenty-two years of age, he was freed shortly after Jefferson’s death in 1826, and along with his brother Eston rented a house with their mother (who was never freed but instead given “her time” by Jefferson’s daughter) in Virginia until Sally’s death in 1835. Madison was the only one of his siblings to keep his identity as a black man. He married a biracial woman, Mary Hughes McCoy in 1834. In 1836, they moved to Ohio, where Madison worked as a carpenter. In his old age, he was approached by S.F. Wetmore to give a memoir, which was published in Ohio’s Pike County Republican in 1873, where he publicly named Thomas Jefferson as his father, gave the history of his mother and her role as Jefferson’s “concubine”, and his own life in slavery. While some of Madison’s descendants passed for white, many continued his legacy of consciously choosing to remain in the black community.

Thomas Eston Hemings Jefferson (1808 - 1889)

Named for Thomas Eston Randolph, Eston, like Beverley and Madison, was apprenticed to John Hemings in carpentry. He is the most famous son of the lot, since it was from his descendants’ DNA that connected the Hemings line to Jefferson. He was said to look the most physically like Jefferson, and also emulated his passion for music, making a living as a musician on the violin and piano. While Jefferson’s will dictated he’d be free at twenty-one, he, like his mother, was given “his time” and was freed earlier. He married a biracial woman Julia Ann Isaacs. Following his brother Madison to Ohio, Eston at first continued to live life as a black man, but later moved to Wisconsin, and passed for white, adopting the last name Jefferson. Apparently unlike Beverley and Harriet, Eston never completely cut ties with his black family, and his descendants moved back and forth between the color line.

More information can be found in Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, and Lucia C. Stanton‘s “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

There is no way to know exactly what governed the timing of Eston Hemings’s decision to slip off his African American identity and move to Wisconsin, leaving his brother behind in Ohio. When Eston and Julia Hemings headed further northwest in 1852, their children were ages fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen. By crossing the color line in unison, before the children reached marriageable age, Eston Hemings’s family avoided the fragmentation that had occurred in his own generation, with the departures of his siblings Harriet and Beverley. The disappearing brothers who haunted succeeding generations of Madison Hemings’s descendants would not be a part of Eston Heming’s legacy, and his adoption of whiteness was successful in its probable intention - escape for his family from the economic and social subordination that prevailed under the “black laws” of Ohio. His daughter Anna married and lived as a white woman. Her brothers were both officers in white regiments in the Union army. Beverly F. Jefferson, who married a white woman, became a prosperous and respected hotel and transfer company owner, while John Wayles Jefferson moved to the South and became a wealthy cotton broker. His articles were published in Wisconsin and Tennessee newspapers, and he corresponded with President Benjamin Harrison about conditions in the postwar South. Eston H. Jefferson’s grandsons even exceeded the success of his sons, becoming lawyers and physicians, as well as prosperous businessmen.

By contrast, the children and grandchildren of Madison Hemings who remained in Ohio were bound by the restricted opportunities for blacks at the time. They were, for the most part, small farmers, storekeepers, laborers, domestic servants, or caterers. While their descendants speak above all of families of love and strength, there are stories of the breaking of the human spirit rather than its triumph, when racial prejudice blighted career expectations and dreams for children. Some lives, as we have also heard in other families descended from the Monticello enslaved community, were tinged with alcohol and anger.

A move to the other side of the color line brought its own set of costs, however. The persistent anxiety of hiding the past is shown in a newspaper account of the meeting of Eston’s son John Wayles Jefferson, then a lieutenant colonel of the 8th Wisconsin, with a citizen of Chillicothe, Ohio, his former residence. “He begged me,” recalled the writer, “not to tell the fact that he had colored blood in his veins, which he said was not suspected by any of his command.” Like Madison Hemings’s sons, John W. Jefferson remained a bachelor, as did two of his nephews, one of whom was a suspected suicide; the other walked down the railroad tracks and “vanished off the face of the earth.” The early deaths of an unusual number of Eston Hemings Jefferson’s male descendants, if not attributable to genetic factors, may be symptomatic of the pressures of passing.

—  Lucia Stanton, “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
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