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Meeting ID: 895 1309 2265
Harriet Hemings was the second of Sally Hemings’s four surviving children. Sometime in 1822 she left Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, boarded a stagecoach bound for Philadelphia, and all but disappeared from the historical record. More than fifty years later, her brother, Madison Hemings, publicly told the family story of his parents, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and of his three siblings. Harriet, he said, passed as a freeborn white woman, “married a white man in good standing in Washington City. . . [and] raised a family of children.” Her enslaved origins were never discovered in her lifetime. This talk pieces together clues from such varied sources as the “Farm Book” (Jefferson’s plantation records) and interviews given by Jefferson’s slaves a decade after the end of the Civil War, to reveal a life lived in the shadows. Even with all the gaps in the documentary record, a dramatic story unfolds of an enslaved girl who grew up to claim the right to shape her own life; who refused to be limited by the options her father’s world presented to her; who weighed carefully the gains and chose to suffer the losses of passing; and whose secret may have died with her.
This program follows her childhood and documents the detective work to try to locate a woman determined to disappear from the historical record. It uses images to help imagine her life at Monticello, Washington, and Philadelphia. It also illuminates the historian’s craft, opening doors to city archives, census records, marriage and baptism records – even a trip to a graveyard.
This presentation opens up the vexed questions about Jefferson’s families, white and black. But it also tells a much larger story - that continues to our own day – about race, gender, and citizenship.
The tale of Harriet Hemings makes plain the perniciousness of racial categories: the utter futility of attempts to maintain rigid racial boundaries in a nation where white men controlled the bodies of black women, even as they insist on institutionalizing those boundaries in every other way (political, legal, economic, and social).
Harriet Hemings also shows us that, however baseless these theories of race are, they nonetheless impose great pain on the lives of people governed by them – even when those people could pass for white.
Presented by: Catherine Kerrison who is a Professor of History at Villanova University, where she teaches courses in Colonial and Revolutionary America and women’s and gender history. She holds a Ph.D. in American history from the College of William and Mary. She is the author of several scholarly articles and two books. Her first book, "Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South," won the Outstanding Book Award from the History of Education Society in 2007. Her second, "Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America" (2018) won the Library of Virginia’s 2019 Literary Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2019 George Washington Book Prize.
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