The Slave Girl Who Stole a President's Heart; Taboo: Sarah Played by Thandie Newton in the Film Jefferson in Paris. Inset: Thomas Jefferson

Daily Mail (London), November 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Slave Girl Who Stole a President's Heart; Taboo: Sarah Played by Thandie Newton in the Film Jefferson in Paris. Inset: Thomas Jefferson


Byline: Charles Forsyth

WHEN Barack Obama was swept to the presidency this week, it marked the end of a long journey for black America. Just how far the nation had travelled from the first slave ship of 1619, through early calls for emancipation, to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King can be revealed in the fascinating story of the country's third President, Thomas Jefferson, and his black slave.

Although they had a passionate affair she bore him four children you will not find Sarah Hemings' name in the official White House history. For at the time, their affair was the ultimate taboo.

Like Obama, Sarah Hemings, often known as Sally, was of mixed race and, by all accounts, she was very beautiful. A contemporary account described her as 'mighty near white' with 'straight hair down her back'. She spoke well, often dressed in the latest fashions and spoke French as well as English.

But despite the veneer of respectability, she was, nevertheless, a slave: unfree and unable to escape her fate. In fact, according to Virginia law at the time, the children of a slave would also become the property of her master.

Now a new book by the black American historian Annette Gordon-Reed reveals the intimate details behind the secret affair.

No one knows when the relationship between master and slave became sexual Jefferson was a meticulous record-keeper, but seems to have overlooked this intimate detail.

However, Sarah was 14 when she began working for Jefferson, and they are most likely to have first slept together two years later.

Jefferson would have been 46.

Sarah was the product of a secret relationship between a white master and his black slave.

Her father was John Wayles, a white plantation owner from the southern, slave-owning state of Virginia; her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, was one of his slaves.

Such relationships set a pattern: mixed-race slaves being prized above their more Africanlooking peers. This applied especially to women, who often had fairer, coffee-coloured skin and flowing black hair.

'Bright mulattoes' were how they were described at the time 'bright' signifying the lightness of their skin tone, and mulatto from the Spanish for 'mule' (a cross, of course, between a horse and donkey). Small wonder that the term is now considered politically incorrect.

Many of these women were beautiful, a fact that did not go unnoticed or unexploited by their white owners, many of whom had slave mistresses alongside their white wives or after they had been widowed.

The result was that southern landowners often had two families: an all- white one with the full protection of the law and which would eventually supply the heir to the estate; and a mixed- race family who had no legal rights and remained his property. Sarah Hemings belonged to the latter. B UT she and Jefferson were bound by more than the fact that she had been taken on as his slave. John Wayles, like so many southern landowners, had a legitimate white family and an unofficial slave one.

And, remarkably, while Jefferson went on to have an affair with Wayles's unofficial, slave daughter, he also married Wayles's legitimate white daughter, Martha Wayles Skelton. To put it another way, Jefferson's wife and his future mistress were half-sisters.

Jefferson married Martha in 1772 and set up home with her in Monticello, the mountain-top house that would eventually become one of the most famous private residences in America.

Martha, a much-admired beauty and accomplished musician but with a delicate constitution, gave birth at least six times, but several babies died and she was weakened with each delivery.

In 1782, she died shortly after giving birth to a daughter. On her death bed with nine-year-old slave girl Sarah apparently in the room she made Jefferson promise he would never marry again. Consumed with grief, he gave her his word. …

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