Most people know the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. He was a Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and a slave-owning Southern farmer. She was his property. Their relationship allegedly began in 1787, when Hemings was just 14 years old. Over the next three decades, Jefferson had as many as six children with her.
There are many horrifying stories about the Founding Fathers, but perhaps one of the most unscrupulous among them was Jefferson. Jefferson, who did other pretty awful things, also broke his promise to the mother of his children: he swore to free her and their progeny, but it didn't happen until he passed away.
Jefferson and Hemings's Black descendants have faced discrimination within the Jefferson family. Jefferson's white descendants showed their prejudice when they stated they didn't believe Jefferson would "rear a race of half breeds." Even when DNA evidence finally proved Jefferson was the father of Hemings's children, some white descendants continued to deny it.
The Jefferson family tree has always been pretty complicated, even in the late 1700s. Thomas Jefferson married Martha Wayles in 1772. Sometime after Martha passed in 1782 after giving birth to seven children, Jefferson began a relationship with his teenage slave, Sally Hemings. In addition to being Jefferson's property, Hemings was also allegedly the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife.
Jefferson's father-in-law, John Wayles, supposedly had children with his Black slave, Betty Hemings. Betty later gave birth to Sally. In fact, Sally moved to Monticello (Jefferson's estate) after Martha inherited her father's property upon his death. Sally's job included watching after Jefferson's daughter Polly, who, if Wayles was Sally's father, was also Sally's niece.
While historians are still unsure if John Wayles was Sally Hemings's father, DNA evidence has persuaded the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation to conclude Jefferson and Hemings did, in fact, have children together.
Jefferson's white children, like Martha Jefferson Randolph, played important roles in Jefferson's presidency. But they cut his Black descendants out of the family tree. Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, Jefferson's granddaughter, argued he wouldn't have "[carried] on his low amours in the circle of his family" or "[reared] a race of half-breeds."
Coolidge deemed Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings a "moral impossibility," arguing that Jefferson was too good of a man and a father to have a relationship with a slave, much less one so close to the family:
I would put it to any fair mind to decide if a man so admirable in his domestic character as Mr. Jefferson, so devoted to his daughters and their children, so fond of their society, so tender, considerate, refined in his intercourse with them, so watchful over them in all respects, would be likely to rear a race of half-breeds under their eyes and carry on his low amours in the circle of his family.
Thomas Jefferson's grandchildren and great-grandchildren fought in the American Civil War, but not on the same side. Several of his white descendants fought for the Confederates, and one, George Wythe Randolph, even served as the Confederate States Secretary of War.
Four of Sally Hemings's grandchildren took up arms for the Union: two fought as white men, and two described themselves as Black. One, John Wayles Jefferson, became a colonel and publicly identified as white even though until he was 15, he lived as a Black man. When he encountered an acquaintance who knew him as a Black man, Jefferson begged him "not to tell the fact that he had colored blood in his veins, which he said was not suspected by any of his command."
In the 1840s, two of Thomas Jefferson's Black children were living in Ohio. Eston and Madison Hemings both publicly acknowledged Jefferson as their father, and newspaper reports quietly identified them as the Founder's children. The Cleveland American reported, "Jefferson injured in the person of his descendants," noting "his own son, now living in Ohio, is not allowed a vote."
The paper followed up by reporting, "We are credibly informed that a natural son of Jefferson by the celebrated 'Black Sal,' a person of no little renown in the politics of 1800 and thereafter, is now living, in a central county of Ohio." The reports appeared in an anti-slavery journal.