NEW YORK – In the early summer of 1776, Thomas Jefferson worked away in the second floor parlor of a boardinghouse in downtown Philadelphia. Wielding language he would call “plain and firm,” he set down the words that still inspire those seeking justice and liberation, “All men are created equal.”
But Jefferson, among history's most studied men, didn’t travel from Virginia to Philadelphia alone. He brought with him an enslaved teen named Robert Hemings, whose life and contributions to history — like so many of his status — are stories of what we don't know.
Beyond being described as light-skinned and having lost the use of one hand in a shooting accident, little was written of his physical appearance — not his height or build or speaking voice. He and Jefferson are believed to have exchanged letters after he was permitted to go free in the 1790s, but the correspondence has been lost, according to historian Annette Gordon-Reed. He was able to own property in Richmond in his latter years, but his burial site remains a mystery. Although he was married and had two children, no family records exist beyond the 19th century.
“No descendants have come forward in modern times,” says Cinder Stanton, senior historian emerita at Monticello whose books include “Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.”
Jefferson privately agonized over the morality of slavery, even attempting in vain to insert an anti-slavery passage into the Declaration, but only briefly referred to Hemings in his notes from that time. Hemings' obscurity extends to popular biographies such as Jon Meacham's “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” which doesn't mention his presence in Philadelphia in 1776, and to the historical site dedicated to the Declaration. According to the National Park Service, Hemings is not included in the exhibit texts of the Declaration House, a reconstruction of the home Jefferson stayed in as a guest of the Philadelphia bricklayer Jacob Graff. The house is under renovation and admittedly in need of updating.
“The current exhibit doesn’t have very much to say about Jefferson’s being the owner of slaves,” says Karie Diethorn, the service’s chief curator for the Declaration House and others parts of Independence National Historical Park. “We want to present a more comprehensive and varied story that has traditional aspects, but also honors people we never heard a lot about before.”
The eldest of six children, Robert Hemings was born in 1762 into bondage, contradiction and entanglement. His father was the slave owner John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s future father-in-law; his mother was a slave, Elizabeth Hemings. Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson fathered several children, was Robert Hemings’ sister, and Jefferson’s future wife, Martha Wayles, was his half-sister. Robert Hemings himself would become both Jefferson’s in-law and his property.
The Hemings siblings were brought to Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, not long after the 1773 death of Wayles. Within the plantation hierarchy, Robert Hemings held a high position and was described once by a friend of Jefferson's as having “behaved exceeding well.” He was just 12 when Jefferson chose him to replace the 31-year-old Jupiter Evans as his personal attendant. He was dressed more formally than other slaves, was permitted to read and write, travel on his own and to learn a craft, as a barber.