The Erased Lives of Enslaved Women Forced to Have the Children of Their Enslavers
Kristen Green on Mary Lumpkin, Sally Hemings, and Many More Whose Names We Don’t Know
When she was about thirteen years old, Mary Lumpkin gave birth to a baby girl, the daughter of Robert Lumpkin. Martha Dabney Lumpkin was born enslaved, just like her mother.
Like Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a Virginia-born enslaved woman forced to have a child with her enslaver even though “she did not wish to give him life,” Mary Lumpkin may not have wanted a child. And yet, like Keckley, who later became a seamstress for Mary Todd Lincoln, and like many other enslaved women before her, Mary probably had little to no say in the matter.
On plantations, enslaved women built networks among themselves to support each other in birthing and raising children, but Mary Lumpkin, isolated from other enslaved people in the jail, likely did not have any such support. At most, she might have had one family member by her side if she had been sold with her mother or a sister. How frightening it must have been to bring a child into the world without older females who knew and loved her to guide her through pregnancy and childbirth, and then through caring for a baby. She must have felt incredibly alone.
If Mary Lumpkin gave birth in Lumpkin’s Jail, the South’s most notorious slave jail, Robert Lumpkin may have called in a midwife to help her. The health risks for Mary Lumpkin and her daughter were great—about half of children born enslaved were stillborn or died in the first years of life. What must it have been like to deliver a child in a place that devalued enslaved people and stripped them of their humanity? As she labored, Mary Lumpkin knew that her child would be enslaved from birth.
On plantations, women who had given birth days earlier were forced to leave their infants, often without food or a caring provider, and return to the fields. As the mother of Robert Lumpkin’s children, and because she lived and worked in the jail, Mary may have been allowed to stay with her baby. She would have been valued in ways that the other people enslaved and housed by Robert Lumpkin were not. If her place in the jail was not already secure, it became so once she gave birth to his child in 1845. Her new status within the jail would have given her some freedom of movement on the property and around Richmond. But her worries about her children were only beginning.
For nearly two decades, she watched as enslaved men, women, and children came through the doors of the slave jail, taken away from everyone they loved to be shipped to new lives of physically demanding work that could kill them. Not much separated her from them, or her child from their children.
As a new mother, Mary Lumpkin now worried not only about her own fate but also about the fate of her daughter.
Throughout history, enslaved women were forced to have the children of their enslavers more commonly than has been acknowledged. Many people are only aware of one—Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had children with Thomas Jefferson, thirty years her senior. Jefferson attempted to keep the relationship hidden, and for more than two hundred years, it mostly remained a secret. Like Mary Lumpkin, Sally Hemings had no way to tell her story. While many people in Jefferson’s day knew about her, and even though their many descendants carried the story, a particular narrative was crafted about Jefferson that erased the Hemings family story. He would be remembered as the brilliant architect of ornate buildings and the author of the Declaration of Independence—a story that did not include Hemings. The legacy of America’s beloved third president did not include his enslaved children and their enslaved mother, an omission that suspended Americans in a false understanding of their nation’s history.
Yet the labor of enslaved people built this country, and it built the White House. Eight of America’s presidents owned enslaved people while they were in office. At least one other president and one vice president fathered children with enslaved girls and women. James Madison’s father, James Madison Sr., had a daughter, Coreen, with an enslaved girl. As a young man, James Madison, the future president, fathered a son, Jim, with this enslaved half-sister. Martin Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Johnson of Kentucky, had two daughters with Julia Chinn, an enslaved woman. She managed his property while he was in Washington and ran a school on the grounds. How many more women like them existed?What must it have been like to deliver a child in a place that devalued enslaved people and stripped them of their humanity?
Sexual abuse was woven through generations of Sally Hemings’s family. She was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Elizabeth Hemings, and her white enslaver, John Wayles, a British immigrant who worked as a slave trader. Elizabeth Hemings was the daughter of an enslaved woman and an English sea captain named Hemings. When Wayles died, he left his enslaved children with Elizabeth Hemings to their white half-sister, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and her husband Thomas Jefferson. Sally Hemings was moved to Monticello as a child, and later she served as a “nursemaid” for the Jeffersons’ young daughter, Polly. After Martha Jefferson died in 1782, Thomas Jefferson went to Paris to serve as minister to France, and fourteen-year-old Hemings was chosen to accompany Polly. While in France, Hemings “became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine” at the age of sixteen, their son Madison Hemings later recounted.
The historian Edward Baptist notes that when powerful men like Jefferson chased “the Sable Venus,” they always captured their prey. Robert Lumpkin took no risk in pursuing Mary Lumpkin. An enslaved girl or woman had no power to thwart the advances of powerful men. “She couldn’t reject them,” Baptist wrote. “Most enslaved women found it vital to go along.”
Sally Hemings and her children with Jefferson were known at Monticello and in wider Charlottesville in the 1790s. Yet the relationship was not public during his tenure as US secretary of state and then as vice president, or during his bid for the US presidency in 1801. News that Jefferson had fathered children with Hemings didn’t break until the following year, when he was serving as president.
“It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY,” wrote the journalist James Callender in the Richmond Recorder, noting that Hemings had a young son. “His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself.”
The scandal was quickly forgotten, and Jefferson never acknowledged his children with Hemings. After he died in 1826 and she in 1835, the truth was buried with them. Madison Hemings claimed Jefferson as his father in an 1873 article in an obscure newspaper, stating that he was born in 1805 when Jefferson was president. But his account either faded from history or was not believed.
Sally Hemings and her children with Jefferson were systematically erased, just as Mary Lumpkin and her children would be. More than a century later, when Black men and women began publicly claiming to be descendants of Jefferson, scholars initially denied that it was possible. This denial went on for decades, until a series of books made a persuasive case that Jefferson had fathered Hemings’s children. Finally, in 2000, Monticello published a report that a direct genetic connection between descendants of Hemings and Jefferson had been established through DNA testing.
For decades, Jefferson’s plantation had tried to ignore or downplay his relationship with Hemings, and she was not discussed on official tours of Monticello. And yet, as the Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott has pointed out, Hemings “might be considered the first lady to the third president of the United States if that didn’t presume her relationship to Jefferson was voluntary.”
Nearly two decades after releasing the report, Monticello shifted its position and began publicly acknowledging Hemings’s role in Jefferson’s life. The museum website was updated to share the story of Hemings, “one of the most famous—and least known—African American women in US history.”
Yet it was the presidential estate’s failure to acknowledge her role in Jefferson’s life for so many years that kept Hemings’s story from being known. In recent years, Monticello has been renovated, in part to showcase the room where Hemings may have slept—a room that had previously been utilized as a public restroom—and created a “Hemings Family Tour” that shares her history.
“For more than 200 years, her name has been linked to Thomas Jefferson as his ‘concubine,’ obscuring the facts of her life and her identity,” the museum’s website read in 2021. Until Monticello became intentional about telling her story, Sally Hemings was portrayed as a victim rather than as someone who had agency, someone who had an identity of her own.
“Though enslaved, Sally Hemings helped shape her life and the lives of her children, who got an almost 50-year head start on emancipation, escaping the system that had engulfed their ancestors and millions of others,” notes the historian Annette Gordon-Reed.
We know that throughout history women who submitted to their enslavers often benefited in small, but tangible, ways. They may have been given better work assignments and nicer living quarters. Silas Omohundro, a Richmond slave trader, provided gold jewelry and diamonds to Corinna Hinton Omohundro, another enslaved woman with whom he had children, and he gave her some freedom of movement around Richmond.
Robert Lumpkin likely either taught Mary Lumpkin to read and write or hired someone else to teach her. While an 1830s law prohibited schools for enslaved people, some enslavers educated the people they enslaved but may have kept it secret. Harriet Jacobs was taught to read and write by her enslaver, Margaret Horniblow. “For this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless [Margaret’s] memory,” Jacobs wrote. While living in France, where she was free, Sally Hemings had laid out terms for going back to Virginia with Jefferson. “She refused to return with him,” Madison Hemings recalled. “To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years.”
Over an eighteen-year period, Sally Hemings had at least six children with Jefferson, four of whom survived to adulthood—sons Beverly, Madison, and Eston and a daughter, Harriet. All four took Hemings as their last name, though later in life Madison and his children used the last name Jefferson. On the estate, Sally Hemings’s workload was light compared to the work of other enslaved people; she was assigned to sew and take care of Jefferson’s “chamber” and wardrobe.
Decades after their Paris negotiation, Jefferson freed Beverly and Harriet Hemings when they turned twenty-one years old. When Jefferson allowed them to leave Monticello in the early 1820s, they were apparently lost to him. He did not free his younger children, Eston and Madison Hemings, until his death, and he never freed their mother. Instead, after Jefferson’s death, his white daughter Patsy permitted Sally Hemings to leave Monticello to live with her youngest sons, who had built a house in Charlottesville.
When Sally Hemings died in 1835, the location of her grave was either not recorded or lost, another erasure.
Excerpted from The Devil’s Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South’s Most Notorious Slave Jail, by Kristen Green. Copyright © 2022. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.