THIS IS THE GUIDED MEDITATION I GAVE TODAY FOR OUR GROUP "MOVEMENT AND MEDITATION." IT IS FREE TO JOIN. Contact Leila Farid on Facebook if you would like to check it out.
Last week I found a nickel, a nickel from heaven, instead of the normal pennies. So I picked it up. Tails. Monticello. I had just read about the recent discovery of Sally Hemings’s slave quarters in the basement of Monticello’s South wing, near Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom. I was intrigued. Synchronicity was hard at work here. The 15 by 13 square foot room had apparently been hidden by plumbing installed for a men’s restroom. But the original flooring underneath had been refurbished in 1809, the year Jefferson retired after two terms as president.
Sally was related to Jefferson’s deceased wife Martha. Martha’s father, a widower, had been particularly fond of Sally's mother, a mixed race slave girl born to Martha’s mother's African slave and an English sea captain. Which meant in genetic terms that Sally was three quarters English, one quarter black and Martha’s half sister. Martha inherited Sally, Sally's mother and 5 siblings when her father died in 1774, a year after Sally was born. Yet Martha’s health was poor. Even though she was in her twenties the physical toll of bearing 6 children in 10 years for Jefferson did her in. She died 8 years after her father at the age of 32, leaving everything to Jefferson, including her slaves.
Jefferson’s pain after loosing his wife was visceral and after a year he accepted a post as Minister to France in Paris to escape depression. He took his eldest daughter with him and 2 years later sent for his other 9 year old daughter so that she, too. could obtain a proper French education. Martha’s sister at Monticello chose Sally, now 14 years old, to accompany the girl. Apparently, Sally was quite “a looker,” and Jefferson at age 44 probably noticed her resemblance to his late wife. They were sisters, after all, although Sally was 25 years younger.
By the time Jefferson was called back to the USA two years later Sally was pregnant. Traditionally, she would have had little say about her fate, except that in France she was considered free. Slavery was illegal. She could have left Jefferson if she wanted to. But where would she go and what would she do with a newborn? How would she survive? Besides, her entire family was in Monticello. And so she chose to return to slavery, but not before she negotiated freedom for all her children upon Jefferson’s death. But oddly, not for herself.
Once back in the US Jefferson quickly advanced to Secretary of State, then Vice President and finally President for 2 terms. But Sally did not accompany him, either to Philadelphia or Washington DC. She remained in Monticello. Yet Jefferson never remarried, preferring to ask Dolly Madison, wife of his Vice President, to act as “Lady of the House” for formal White House occasions. Meanwhile, Sally bore 3 of their 6 children while Jefferson was in the White House, probably in her 200 square foot room. No fields for Sally, no kitchen duty, no spinning factory. Instead her duties were to take care of Jefferson’s room, his clothes, and her children. According to the writings of one son, Jefferson fathered no other children at Monticello. Meanwhile, Sally’s sons became carpenters and accomplished fiddlers, while her daughter, once grown, worked in the spinning factory. Jefferson himself played the violin since he was a boy and loved it. He was also fond of woodworking and carpentry and spent much time in Monticello’s workshop.
In the end, Sally’s daughter and eldest son were allowed to leave for the north in their 20s while Jefferson was still alive. Their fate is unknown. Jefferson’s other two surviving sons were freed according to his will when he died at age 83. By then Sally was 53 years old. Mother and sons moved to Charlottesville, Virginia where she died 9 years later, a free “mulato.” In all, she spent 37 years with Jefferson, almost three decades more than the time he spent with his wife.
I tell this story because I want to honor Sally’s memory in these times of heightened racial awareness. As the saying goes, behind every great man is an even greater woman - who in this case was a slave. Now, put yourself in her shoes. How would you have reacted under similar circumstances? Think about the conditions she was born into and how she was raised. How much did you know about sex and love at 16? About life? Imagine being 16 again, faced with the choice of a lifetime - living in Paris as a free woman but pregnant, perhaps penniless, and cut off from your family, or returning to slavery as the secret concubine of a man with immense power.
No, life isn’t fair, and each generation has its crosses to bear. Yet each is still slightly better off than their predecessors for food, health care and creature comforts. And we are steadily traveling away from racism, female inequality and sexual oppression, albeit with many bumps in the road. So now think of Sally Hemings. See her face. Look into her eyes. She has a message for you. When she’s finished communicating, open your eyes.
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