HISTORY

Why No One Should Be Calling Sally Hemings Thomas Jefferson's Mistress

This terminology implies a level of consent never given

Allison Wiltz
8 min readNov 30, 2023

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AI-generated portrait of 14-year-old Sally Hemings near Monticello | Created by the author using Canvia

From a Black American perspective, this country has a duplicitous nature, like Thalia and Melpomene, the Greek comedy and tragedy mask. How else can you explain that Thomas Jefferson, our country's third president and "founding father," who claimed "all men are created equal" in The Declaration of Independence enslaved hundreds of Black people? At Monticello, his Virginia plantation, Jefferson deprived hundreds of Black people of any semblance of equality, let alone the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," he alluded to in America's founding doctrine. And the story of Sally Hemings puts a fine point on the injustices Black women regularly experienced during the chattel slavery era.

In historical texts, many people have referred to Sally Hemings, who was 14 years old when 44-year-old Thomas Jefferson began a sexual relationship with her as his "concubine" or "mistress." For instance, in 1802, James Callender wrote in a Virginia newspaper that Sally was Jefferson's "concubine," adding, "It is well-known." However, once you understand the nature of slavery, you will realize why this terminology aims to protect the character of the enslaver while manufacturing consent for sexual exploitation. As Britni Danielle wrote in the Washington Post, "Sally Hemings wasn't Thomas Jefferson's mistress. She was his property." No love story genuinely starts with a man enslaving a woman, which is why no one should be referring to Sally Hemings as a "concubine" or "mistress."

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was the most extensive human trafficking operation in human history and the largest forced migration. However, the initial crime of mass human trafficking was only the beginning of the horrors that Black women experienced. Once sold and living on plantations, Black women and girls like Sally Hemings were sexually exploited to increase the population of enslaved people. There was no process of courting, of asking a Black woman for her hand in marriage, seeking her consent, or even a grace period of waiting until a girl reached physical maturity in relationships between Black enslaved women and White slave-owning men.

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Allison Wiltz

Womanist Scholar bylines @ Momentum, Oprah Daily, ZORA, GEN, EIC of Cultured #WEOC Founder allisonthedailywriter.com https://ko-fi.com/allyfromnola