Read Sally Heming Online

Authors: Barbara Chase-Riboud

Sally Heming

Sally Hemings




Barbara Chase-Riboud




a   seaver   book

The Viking Press • New





Copyright Barbara
All rights reserved A Seaver Book/The Viking Press First
published in
by The Viking Press
Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y.
simultaneously in Canada by Penguin Books Canada Limited

library of congress cataloging in publication data

Chase-Riboud, B Sally

"A Seaver
Hemings, Sally—Fiction. 2. Jefferson, Thomas, Pres. U.S.,
I. Title. PZ4.C4888Sal  
813'.5'4  78-12682

Printed in the United
States of America Set in Linoterm Baskerville


To the enigma of the historical Sally Hemings

That God forbid that made me first your slave,

I should in thought control your times of pleasure,

Or at your hand the account of hours to crave...

william shakespeare


Records are destroyed. Histories are annihilated, or
interpolated, or prohibited. Sometimes by popes, sometimes by emperors,
sometimes by aristocratic and sometimes by democratic assemblies,. . . such had
been and such is the world we live in....

john adams










afterword and acknowledgments

source documents







There are documents included in this novel which

are not only authentic, they are central to the story

of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. These

documents are like the sea on which their small and

private boat sailed.












It is difficult to determine on the standard by which the
manners of a nation may be tried, whether
It is more
difficult for a native to bring to that standard the manners of his own nation,
familiarized to him by habit. There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on
the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us.

thomas jefferson,
Notes on the State of Virginia,



There was
a white man
coming up her road, as if God had ordained it and as if he owned the road.

The woman standing in the dark square of the cabin doorway
knew that this was the way white men arrived. Anyway, no slave would be driving
a carriage unaccompanied. And the only freedmen for miles around were her sons,
Madison and Eston. She never thought of herself as free, and now, at fifty-six,
with her sons waiting politely for her to die so that they could move West (why
was she so stubborn about it?), she was fixed in another time and space,
belonging to another epoch, an epoch which had ended for her on the Fourth of
four years gone.

The cabin in which she stood was the most beggarly habitation
for miles around. The land surrounding it was cotton-exhausted and impossible
to work. Yet they worked it, her sons, with a furor and a wrenching
desperation, although it was not even theirs. Freed slaves could not own land
in Virginia. It was rented; expensive and worthless—eroded, hilly, evil. The
cabin leaned into its own decay. Backed as it was against the boundaries of the
once-famous plantation of Monti-cello, it too now strangled in its own

The carriage was approaching, the iron wheels grinding
against the deep ruts of the ill-kept road. She could see that it was not
really a carriage but a buckboard. And what she had thought to be horses were
really a very pretty pair of matched beige-and-brown mules, fat and glossy. Her
eyes followed the advance of the little buckboard without surprise, as if the
event that was to take place had already been explained to her, as if she knew
who would be arriving in such splendor at an ex-slave's cabin door.

Actually her eyes were never surprised. They were eyes of a
deep amber yellow, mark of a quadroon, which gave her whole face an illusion of
transparency. Eyes that were liquid gold in an ivory mask; windows onto banked
and mysterious fires that burned day and night, absorbing everything and returning
nothing to the surface. The skin was drawn, but smooth. There was no way to
tell her age; neither in the lines of her face nor the contours of her
body—which was small and low, compact and strong, with that wiry vivacity of
congenital thinness. Her head was bound in a white cloth that darkened the skin
and set off the pale and beautiful mouth with its two deep dimples on either
side. In her ears dangled small ruby earrings, like tiny drops of blood,
incongruous next to the faded rough black-linen dress and its black apron. She
was still in mourning. Her hands, which were hidden in the folds of her apron,
were small, soft, and slender, unmarked by hard labor.

The buckboard had stopped at the bottom of the orchard. The
man had gotten out and was making his way up the steep path to her door. As she
watched the approaching stranger, her expression changed swiftly from curiosity
to anger to apprehension. There were only two reasons for a white man to be
coming to the cabin: either he was the census taker from the Albemarle County
Courthouse or the sheriff with an eviction notice. Either would ask the same
questions: her name, her age, and if she were slave or free. Well, everybody in
Albemarle County, every Tidewater family for fifty miles around, knew her name;
how many children she had, and by whom; knew too that as a manumitted slave she
had no right by law to remain in Virginia—unless she had been granted a special
dispensation from the Virginia legislature.

If the census taker, if that's who he was, had any sense at
all, he wouldn't have had to come all the way up here in the afternoon heat to
ask her what he undoubtedly already knew: if she was Sally Hemings of



The slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson had been famous in
Albemarle County for as long as he could remember. At least her name was
famous. Few people had actually seen her and that was one of the reasons he was
making his way slowly up this wretched road: to meet Sally Hemings face to

Not one person in a hundred would recognize "Dusky
Sally" if they saw her, he concluded. She had seldom left Monticello in
all her fifty years there, yet it seemed he had always heard her name. His
father had known both her masters, John Wayles, the father, and Thomas
Jefferson, the lover. Nathan Langdon, who was indeed the census taker for
Albemarle County, smiled grimly. He was home. He was home in Virginia, with its
passions, its blood feuds, its pride, its duels, its Southern honor. And glad
of it. Even in the few weeks he had been back, the energy and efficiency of his
affected Northern manner had disappeared like a lizard's skin. The heat, the
languid pace of the tidy, beautiful mules, the lurch of the old-fashioned but
elegant buggy, the reins softly caressing the palms of his hands, all gently contributed
to make him feel at home. He settled his large frame into the cracked leather
of the seat and raised his eyes to the little cabin sitting on the boundary
between the wilderness of a ragged pine forest and the southernmost acres of
Monticello. As he did he saw a childlike figure standing in the lopsided
doorway. A woman. Sally Hemings. It must be. There were no other women out this



The shadowed figure in the doorway stood stock-still. Why
was it that she could never control the dread and panic she felt at the
approach of a white man? Any white man. A familiar uneasiness settled in her
stomach. There had been only one white man she had ever welcomed. And he was
dead and buried behind this cabin on his little mountain.

At least Madison and Eston were not home. If there was
trouble, she preferred to face it alone. Facing down an angry white man was a
black woman's job, not a black man's unless he was prepared to die. But then
this man just might be the census taker Madison had spoken about the other day.

She felt a strange calm. The sheriff would have an eviction
notice, if he had anything, and a writ to run them out of the State of
Virginia— which would suit her sons just fine, if they could leave peaceably.

Sally Hemings knew her presence in Virginia and that of her
sons depended on the will and whim of her niece, Martha Jefferson Randolph. It
was Martha who had manumitted her, and it was Martha who had persuaded her
friends in the legislature to allow her to stay. Her life here depended on
Martha, and Martha depended on her silence. Both had their reasons. So be it.
They both had reasons to keep silent— reasons that would die with them. It was
against the law for a freed slave to remain in Virginia more than a year and a
day from the date of emancipation. The slave risked being sold back into

But she would die in Virginia, at Monticello, God willing,
and not in some desert scalped by wild Indians. Madison and Eston were young
and healthy. The West was their only chance; but she would finish her days
here. Her sons would simply have to wait. It wouldn't be all that long.

The white man was approaching on foot. Weaving in and out
of her apple orchards, the sun to his back. The pretty mules, shimmering in the
heat, were stopped quietly at the bottom of the pathway. Sally Hemings heard
the flutter of her chickens at roost in their pen, and felt the sun on her
eyelids as she closed them against the glare.



Nathan Langdon had practically forgotten his fascination
with Sally Hemings as he made his way toward the cabin. The strange destiny of
Sally Hemings seemed less urgent to ponder than his own future, now that he was

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