In part five of our series on primary resources related to Sally Hemings, we consider the recollections of Madison Hemings. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) This particular document is better understood as a “recollection,” rather than a memoir, because it’s the product of an interview with S. F. Wetmore, editor of the Pike County Republican in Hemings’s new home of Ohio. Hemings spoke, Wetmore presumably took notes, and the result was a first-person piece that appeared in the paper on March 13, 1873.
Anyway, the reason “Life Among the Lowly, Number 1” is so important is because Hemings declares that Thomas Jefferson was his father and Sally Hemings his mother. He also details the story of Elizabeth Hemings, his enslaved grandmother, and John Wayles—her owner, Hemings’s father, and Jefferson’s father-in-law. If you know much about Sally & Tom, then you know about the promise Jefferson is alleged to have made her in Paris: accompany me back to Virginia and I will free any our of subsequent children when they reach the age of twenty-one. That story comes from Madison Hemings, too.
So is Hemings to be believed? Until around 2000, when the consensus began to shift, many historians wondered if Wetmore, a former abolitionist, had not put words into Hemings’s mouth. An editorial published in a rival newspaper said as much, while claiming that Hemings, like so many other African Americans, simply wanted to claim more illustrious parentage.
We’ll have that primary document published on the site soon, but in the meantime, read what Madison Hemings had to say and make a judgment for yourself.
IMAGES: Monticello (chriskern.net); a detail from “Life Among the Lowly, No. 1” by Madison Hemings, Pike County (Ohio) Republican, March 13, 1873 (Ohio Historical Society); Sandra Seaton (top row center) and some descendants of Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings, at the Library of Congress, photo by Robert Barclay (Michigan Quarterly Review)