What Happened to Harriett Hemings?

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Thomas Jefferson had four children with his slave, Sally Hemings.  One of them was a daughter.  Her name was Harriett.  According to historian Catherine Kellison, “Sally’s daughter boarded a stagecoach to freedom at age 21, bound for Washington D.C.  Her father had given her $50 for her travel expenses.  She would never see her mother or younger brothers again.”

Learn more about Harriett Hemings in Kellison’s recent piece at The Washington Post: “How Did We Lose a President’s Daughter.”  Here is a taste:

Since Harriet’s time, science has proved there is no difference in blood as a marker of “race.” As a biological category, racial difference has been exposed as a sham. Even skin color is not a reliable indicator of one’s origins. As one study calculated, almost a third of white Americans possess up to 20 percent African genetic inheritance, yet look white, while 5.5 percent of black Americans have no detectable African genetic ancestry. Race has a political and social meaning, but not a biological one.

This is why the story of Harriet Hemings is so important. In her birth into slavery and its long history of oppression, she was black; but anyone who saw her assumed she was white. Between when she was freed in 1822 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, she was neither free nor enslaved — yet she lived as a free person.

She does not comfortably fit any of the terms that have had such inordinate power to demarcate life in America. Her disappearance from the historical record is precisely the point. When we can so easily lose the daughter of a president and his slave, it forces us to acknowledge that our racial categories are utterly fallacious and built on a science that has been thoroughly discredited.

Read the entire piece here.