[Paleopsych] NYT: Lust Across the Color Line and the Rise of the Black Elite

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Opinion > Editorial Observer: Lust Across the
Color Line and the Rise of the Black Elite


    The 1998 DNA study that linked Thomas Jefferson to the final child of
    his lover Sally Hemings has settled one argument and fired up another.
    Most historians who had argued that Jefferson was too pure of heart to
    bed a slave have re-evaluated 200 years of evidence and embraced the
    emerging consensus: that Jefferson had a long relationship with
    Hemings and probably fathered most, if not all of her children.

    Having acknowledged the relationship, these historians are now trying
    to explain it. This has sent them scrambling back to the 19th-century
    accounts of life at Monticello by two former slaves: Jefferson's
    former servant, Israel Jefferson, and the founder's son, Madison
    Hemings. This represents the rehabilitation of Madison, who was being
    vilified as a liar even 10 years ago.

    Madison's memoir, based partly on family history conveyed to him by
    his mother, is as close to the voice of Sally Hemings as we will ever
    come. But neither of these brief accounts, published in an Ohio
    newspaper in 1873, reveals anything about the intimate texture of the
    relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. They tell us
    a great deal, however, about the circumstances that created the black
    intelligentsia that sprang to life during Reconstruction and that
    dominated African-American cultural, intellectual and political life
    through the first half of the 20th century.

    This black intelligentsia did not spring fully formed from the cotton
    fields. It had its roots in the families of mixed-race slaves like the
    Hemingses, who served as house servants for generations, often in the
    homes of white families to whom they were related. Employed in "the
    big house," these slaves often learned to read, at a time when few
    slaves were literate. They also absorbed patterns of speech, dress and
    deportment that served them well after emancipation.

    Many of them were set free by their guilt-ridden slave owner fathers
    long before the official end of slavery. The Hemings children were all
    free by 1829 - or more than a third of a century before slavery was
    finally abolished. Not surprisingly, mixed-race offspring who were
    well educated became teachers, writers, newspaper editors. They formed
    the bedrock of an emerging black elite and were disproportionately
    represented in the African-American leadership during Reconstruction
    and well into the 20th century.

    Not all of these mixed-race children fared so well, however. Many were
    sold or passed on as chattel to relatives in their fathers' wills.
    This was in fact the case with Sally Hemings, one of several children
    born to a mixed-race slave named Betty Hemings and a white lawyer and
    businessman named John Wayles - the father of Thomas Jefferson's wife,
    Martha. When Wayles died, Martha inherited some of her enslaved half
    siblings, including Sally Hemings.

    Sally Hemings was just a child when she accompanied Jefferson and his
    daughter to France for more than two years. Madison tells us in his
    memoir that his mother became pregnant by Jefferson in France, where
    she was considered free. She refused to return to America, he said,
    until Jefferson agreed to free all of the children born of their

    Madison recalls that he and his siblings were favored at Monticello,
    and allowed to spend their time in the "great house," where they could
    be close to their mother. Madison further asserts that they knew of
    Jefferson's plans to emancipate them. "We were free from the dread of
    having to be slaves all our lives long, and were measurably happy," he

    Jefferson's favoritism, however, did not include affection.
    Jefferson's black children, who seem never to have received so much as
    an embrace or a peck on the cheek, watched in what must have been
    painful silence as the great man doted on his white grandchildren.
    Madison says, "We were the only children of his by a slave woman."

    The "great house" at Monticello offered abundant opportunities for
    encounters with the great minds of the day. Israel Jefferson, for
    example, recalls being present when Jefferson and Lafayette debated
    the question of slavery.

    Raised in such a context, the Hemings children - and others like them
    - were probably better prepared for middle-class life than most
    people, either black or white. Indeed, historians who have followed
    the Hemings descendants through time have found that the cultural
    capital acquired by Hemings children at Monticello translated into
    upward mobility.

    Historians who are now searching for ways to understand the
    Jefferson-Hemings relationship have several models from which to
    choose. Some masters developed caring, de facto marriages with
    enslaved women and tried to leave their children money and property in
    their wills. Other masters were serial rapists or plantation
    potentates who made harems in their slave quarters and were profoundly
    indifferent to their offspring.

    For the time being, however, the last word on this issue should go to
    Madison Hemings, who flatly and dispassionately describes the
    relationship as a bargain, in which his mother consented to share
    Jefferson's bed in exchange for the emancipation of her children. That
    she had the courage to articulate this deal - and stand firm on its
    terms - makes her more than a mere concubine. It makes her the
    architect of her family's freedom.

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