Jillian Atkin Sim
Jillian Sim, a writer and mother of two, was raised in the white world. Her grandmother, Ellen Love, an actress, told her many family stories heard from her mother, Anita Hemmings Love. She mentioned connections to Jefferson and an English sea captain, but never spoke of descent from enslaved people. Jill Sim learned of her African American ancestry only after her grandmother’s death in 1994. She published an account of her discovery in American Heritage, which tells the story of Anita Hemmings, who made headlines around the world in 1897 when it was revealed that she was passing for white at Vassar College.
Jill Sim believes, but cannot yet say with certainty, that she is descended from Elizabeth Hemings’s son Peter Hemings, a Monticello cook and brewer who worked as a tailor after he became free in 1827, purchased by a relative at the Monticello estate sale.
Sally Hemings came to Monticello as an infant as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles. She spent two years as lady’s-maid to Jefferson’s daughters in Paris, where she could have claimed her freedom. After returning to Monticello in 1789, she was a domestic servant in the main house. She was unofficially freed after Jefferson’s death in 1826 and lived with her sons Madison and Eston in Charlottesville until her own death.
Years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six of Sally Hemings’s children. Four survived to adulthood and are mentioned in Jefferson’s plantation records: Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings. According to her son Madison Hemings, Jefferson promised Sally Hemings in Paris to free any children they might have at the age of twenty-one. Four of their children reached adulthood and became free close to their twenty-first birthdays. Beverly Hemings and his sister Harriet Hemings were allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit and passed into white society. Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings Jefferson — freed by the terms of Jefferson’s will — left for Ohio in the 1830s and chose to live on different sides of the color line.
The majority of those interviewed for the Getting Word project trace their ancestry to Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings. According to her grandson Madison Hemings, she was the daughter of an English sea captain named Hemings and an enslaved woman. She came with her children to Monticello about 1775, part of the inheritance from John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law. There she was a valued domestic servant. Over seventy-five of her descendants lived and worked at Monticello as butlers, seamstresses, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, gardeners, and musicians.
Elizabeth Hemings had twelve known children. According to Madison Hemings, six of them were fathered by Wayles (Robert, James, Thenia, Critta, Peter, and Sally). All of the men and women freed by Jefferson (either officially or unofficially) were her children or grandchildren. Oral histories passed through many generations of the descendants of her daughters Mary Hemings Bell, Betty Brown, and Sally Hemings include the tradition of descent from Jefferson.
Mary Hemings Bell
Mary Hemings was Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest child. After the 1774 division of the estate of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, she was brought with her family to Monticello, where she was a valued household servant. She had six children, the two youngest with white merchant Thomas Bell, who became her common-law husband. Bell purchased Mary Hemings and their children, Robert and Sarah, freed them, and bequeathed them his considerable property.
Jefferson was unwilling to sell Mary Hemings Bell’s older children, Joseph Fossett and Betsy Hemmings, who remained in slavery at Monticello. After Thomas Bell’s death in 1800, Mary—described in one court document as his “relict & widow”—lived with her children and grandchildren in a house on Charlottesville’s main street. She maintained close ties with her still-enslaved relations at Monticello. Her free status and property helped her son Joseph Fossett minimize the fragmenting of his family at the Monticello dispersal sale in 1827.
In 1772, Elizabeth Hemings’s second daughter, Betty Brown, was the first of her family to come to Monticello, as the enslaved personal maid of Jefferson’s wife Martha. In the words of a member of Jefferson’s family, Betty Brown was “quite a personage on the mountain.” After almost sixty years of domestic work in the main house, she was one of the last of the Hemingses to live on the Monticello mountaintop, remaining there until the property was sold in 1831.
Described as “light colored & decidedly good looking,” Betty Brown had seven children who lived to adulthood. Among these were enslaved head gardener Wormley Hughes, enslaved Monticello butler Burwell Colbert, and enslaved nailmaker Brown Colbert. Her sons Edwin and Robert both became runaways after being given and sold away from Monticello. Her daughter Melinda Colbert Freeman married and lived in freedom in Washington, DC. Betty Brown died in the early 1830s, probably before her daughter Mary Colbert and son Brown Colbert chose to seek freedom in the African colony of Liberia in 1833.