Half Sisters – Martha Jefferson & Sally Hemings
2002, oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 42”
When Martha Jefferson died 10 years after her marriage to Thomas, he was so inconsolable people began to think he had gone mad. Rumor has it he made a deathbed promise to Martha never to remarry. There is a lot of talk about whether Jefferson fathered his black slave Sally Hemings’ children. Science can only tell us that some Jefferson did — but not which one. I feel that the real story is being overlooked. Most people don’t know that Sally was Martha’s half-sister and that, by written accounts, she looked like Martha. Sally moved into the White House after Martha’s death. How strange it must have been for Jefferson to be constantly reminded of his dead wife. Sally’s children were the only slaves Jefferson freed; he did so upon his death, but by that time a couple of Sally’s children had already escaped. Being so fair-skinned, they passed into white society keeping their past a secret.