Descendants of Thomas Jefferson and descendants of his slave Sally Hemings pose for a group shot at his plantation Saturday, May 15, 1999, for the first time in 170 years during the Monticello Association's Annual meeting Saturday, May 15, 1999, in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Leslie Close)

Quick Hit(s): Why Sally Hemings Was not Thomas Jefferson’s “Mistress”

In the week following the news from Monticello that archaeologists had unearthed Sally Hemings’ bedroom, the internet has exploded with one important reminder: Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s mistress.

Hemings had six children by Jefferson. Yet she was not Thomas Jefferson’s mistress because she was his slave, and as his slave she was treated by him, and the entire system in which they lived, as property. Someone without legal status as a human, subject to constant violent coercion, cannot consent to sex. Enslaved women who bore white men’s children, and especially the children of their owners, were not “mistresses” or “lovers”: they were victims of rape.

It’s an important discussion not only for retaining a clear-eyed vision of the racist foundations of American history—more important now, with professed white nationalists in the White House, than ever. It’s also an important discussion in recognizing the nature of consent, and the racialized sexual violence Black women experienced throughout slavery and continue to experience today.

The debate started when both NBC and, a couple months previously, The Washington Post, tweeted headlines referring to Hemings as a mistress. (They’ve both since revised their headlines.)

Following the headlines, several writers penned critiques of the underlying logic.

Britni Danielle, at The Washington Post, situates the use of the word “mistress” as part of the same trend toward whitewashing histories of slavery, comparing it to textbooks’ dubbing of slaves as “workers” or Bill O’Reilly arguing that the slaves who built the White House were “well-fed”:

That same sanitization of history happened again with the Hemings news. On Twitter, some users defended the “mistress” label, suggesting, essentially, that Jefferson and his slave may have truly loved each other. One person even went so far as to wonder whether “Hemings’s exalted wisdom and beauty compelled Jefferson’s love” and whether “she was perhaps not a victim but an agent of change?”

Jefferson could have forced Hemings into a sexual relationship no matter what she wanted, though. And it’s impossible to know what Hemings thought of Jefferson. As with many enslaved people, her thoughts, feelings and emotions were not documented. According to, there are only four known descriptions of the woman who first came to Jefferson’s plantation as a baby on the hip of her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whom Jefferson also owned.

Anthony Smith makes similar points at Mic.

Meanwhile, Michael Harriot at The Root challenges us to grapple with the racist evils at the foundation of the United States, asking why there has not been a sustained project of reconciliation for slavery:

There isn’t a second of any day that Germany isn’t trying to make up for the genocide it committed during the Third Reich. It caters its laws to that goal. It teaches that history to every person who comes through its borders. In Germany, minimizing those atrocities is a crime.

Like Germany, America participated in a holocaust. Unlike Germany’s, it didn’t last for a few years, or even a decade—it lasted for generations. It is not just a chapter in this country’s past—it is America’s foundation. Let’s be clear: The only reason America is the richest, most dominant economic superpower on the planet is that it was jump-started with 200 years of free labor.

Whenever we speak of America, we should honor that. Our Founding Fathers were intellectual giants who created a democracy out of thin air, and it is still going strong today. They were revolutionary thinkers and the framers of almost every liberty we enjoy. I would not be able to write this article without them.

But they were rapists, too.

The question raised here is, of course, an old one, and one that is near-impossible to answer in clear terms: How do we contend with the history and current reality of a nation built on anti-Black and anti-indigenous (as well as racialized anti-woman) violence?

What do we make of the “great men” who embody everything we despise?

What and how do we remember unspeakable violence?

I don’t have the answers, but here’s one thing I—and the writers above—know for sure: Healing history means confronting it, not glossing it over. And it means calling violence against Black women by its name, not romanticizing it to cover up an evil system.

Cover photo: Descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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