Sally Hemings

Raising a Family Amidst the Brutality of Slavery

As an enslaved person, Sally Hemings struggled to improve her family’s prospects as she labored under the institution of slavery. By dividing her life into four major stages, students will encounter the difficult choices forced upon enslaved women by an evil institution.

  • 1 class period; 90 minutes
  • Students will be able to evaluate the choices available to enslaved women like Sally Hemings.
  • Students will use the four essential themes to analyze and discuss Sally Hemings’s impact on her family and plantation community at Monticello.
  • Either individually or as a group, students will present and support their theme and its relevance to Sally Hemings’s life in a cohesive and factual statement using information and knowledge gained from class materials and discussion.

Students need to understand who Thomas Jefferson was and the basic outline of plantation life and slavery in Virginia.  The information below is an example of a short tutorial or lecture that can be provided to students to provide background information.

Life in colonial Virginia, and most states throughout the South, provided few options for enslaved people.  The law recognized their owners’ rights to their bodies and labor without regard for the humanity of the enslaved.  In addition to recognizing slaveowners’ claims, America’s legal system acted swiftly and decisively in their favor.  In accordance with partus sequitur ventrem, a Latin term meaning “that which is brought forth follows the womb,” children followed their mother’s status – free or enslaved.  Once a person found themselves inside the institution, they had few legal options to gain their freedom or to demand respect from white Americans.  In most cases, even in the northern states, the law forbade African Americans from voting, serving on juries, testifying in court, or defending themselves against abuse from whites.  The system served to place even the lowliest white citizens above any African American, free or enslaved.

The situation proved even more tenuous for enslaved women as they were exposed to additional cruelties and harassment.  All slaves were in constant danger of humiliation, physical violence, unrequited toil, and sale to distant lands.  In addition to these concerns, women on rural plantations also found themselves having to deal with the sexual advances of their owners.  Again, the law provided no recourse for these women as they were recognized as property.  As a result, many women were forced into sexual relationships by their masters.  For their entire lives, the enslaved population on rural plantations, especially women, were required to make a series of life-altering decisions.

Due to Sally Hemings’s enslaved status, her children with Thomas Jefferson were considered slaves.  Despite the prestige and reputation of their revolutionary father, or perhaps because of it, they had little support after they gained their freedom.  At several points in her life, the institution of slavery forced Sally Hemings to make difficult decisions that put the lives of her and her children in danger.  Although her position as a favored house servant prevented her from some of the most egregious abuses committed on field workers, her duties required her to constantly live amongst her enslavers.  Therefore, her position allowed her to avoid most of the physical violence associated with slavery, but her status as property left her vulnerable to her master’s whims.


Teacher will need access to a projector for discussion questions and any other information.  In addition, teachers will need to have electronic or paper copies of the Life Stage Information Sheet. There are four stages and teachers need to ensure that there are sufficient copies for all group members.  Finally, computers or tablets will need to be available for additional research.


Opening Activity: 10 minutes:

Begin the lesson with a class discussion using the questions below in order to introduce the students to the effect that slavery had on those forced to endure it.  For this exercise, divide your students into pairs (Pair Share) to consider and answer the discussion questions.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What were some of the aspects of slavery that made it so atrocious to human nature?

Possible Responses:

  • No freedom to move where you want, marry who you want, or maintain a family
  • Forced to work without compensation
  • Forced to work long hours without rest
  • Provided insufficient food
  • Vulnerable to physical violence and beatings
  • Vulnerable to sale by the owner away from other family members
  • Forced to mate with other enslaved people or the owner
  • Humiliated on a daily basis and made to believe that you lacked humanity and dignity
  • Constantly watched and monitored


  1. How do you think the enslaved population resisted these measures?

Possible Responses (From Passive to Active Resistance):

  • Learned to Read and Write
  • Worked slowly
  • Broke tools
  • Destroyed Crops
  • Pretended to not understand various tasks
  • Negotiated for the rights to form families, keep extra earnings, and practice their religion
  • Sued for Their Freedom
  • Hid Away for Long Periods
  • Ran-away
  • Poisoned or revolted against the owner


  1. How would you maintain your humanity in the face of such brutality?
  2. How would you have responded if not only your life, but those of your children (born and unborn) hung in the balance?  How might that change your decisions?

Developmental Activity: 50 minutes:

For the primary learning activity, the students will work cooperatively to complete a Jig Saw activity.  Sally Hemings’s life will be divided into four (4) separate stages where she encountered a series of difficult decisions.  The class will be evenly divided into the four (4) groups and the students will read their particular Life Stage Information Sheet.  Each of these information guides are roughly a half-page to one page that describes Sally’s environment and the difficult choices confronting her.  After the students have had roughly ten minutes to read and discuss their stage of life, then set-up the sharing portion of the activity.  They should be relaying the particulars of their stage to their classmates along with the difficult choices that confronted her or her family at that moment.

At the end of ten minutes, half the members of each group will remain at their designated table while the other group members will move one-at-a-time to meet with the other groups.  Allow 5 minutes for each table discussion session.  Rotate every five minutes until every student has heard the content and discussed the issues facing Sally Hemings at all the stages of her life.  Move the students in a clockwise or counterclockwise pattern to prevent confusion.  Also, do not allow students to move groups before the timer runs out to prevent congestion.

Four Stages:

  1. Born into Slavery and Inherited by Jefferson
  2. Travels to France and Consents to Return to Virginia
  3. Children with Jefferson
  4. The Children Gain Their Freedom

Bring the students together for a whole group discussion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. During what part of Sally Hemings’s life did you believe she confronted the most difficult circumstances?  Provide one or more examples to explain your reasoning.
  2. Making life decisions is hard for everyone, but how did slavery make everyday decisions for Sally Hemings extremely important?  Provide at least one example to explain your reasoning.
  3. Unfortunately, master and slave relationships were an all too common occurrence for enslaved women.  Historians probably know more about Sally Hemings and her family than any other enslaved due to Jefferson’s status and the illicit rumors of their relationship in the early nineteenth century.  Most women became victims of slavery and their stories were never heard again.  After examining Sally Hemings story, however, do you have a higher degree of respect for what enslaved women were forced to confront?  Why or why not?
  4. What questions do you still have about the lives of everyday enslaved people and how they strove to overcome its brutality to maintain their own humanity?

Closing Discussion and Activity: Impact of Sally Hemings: 30 minutes

To mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020, the National Women's History Museum (NWHM) has created connective, thought provoking and essential themes to take students beyond studying women in history to analyzing and discussing how women have impacted history.

  • Expanding Roles
  • Defying Expectations
  • Breaking Barriers
  • Creating Momentum for Change

Discuss with your students that as an oppressed group, women have had to work to expand their role and rights throughout history.  As a class, discuss the four essential themes and identify key characteristics the students believe define each theme: what it means to expand roles, defy expectations, break barriers, or create momentum, or push for, change.  Through class discussion, students will explore the concepts and determine how the actions and achievements of women, especially enslaved women like Sally Hemings define or exemplify each of the key themes.

After the class has come to a consensus, divide the students into four groups.

  • Assign each group one of the four essential themes; allow 10 minutes discussion time.
  • Each group will discuss how and why some part of Sally Hemings’s story, or the experience of enslaved women in general, connect to their assigned theme; employing the attributes developed in the class discussion.

Next, bring the class together and invite each group to define their theme and describe how enslaved women in general or Sally Hemings in particular fit that theme.  The groups may choose one spokesperson or assign each group member a topic or idea.

  • Query: After completing the activity, would students broaden the theme’s parameter? Why or why not?

Final Discussion Question:

  1. How do you believe enslaved women were shaped by the institution of slavery?
  2. How did women like Sally Hemings also shape the institution of slavery?
Assessment / Homework

As a closing assignment, every student will attempt to put themselves into the shoes of women who endured the horrors of slavery and fought to create a better life for them and their families.


  • Pretend you are an enslaved female worker in early nineteenth-century Virginia.  You will be writing a diary entry detailing both the horrors you have endured in slavery, but also your hopes for the future.  In your entry, you can imagine and create what your life was like and what had happened to you.  You can also include what your master was like, your treatment, your work responsibilities, and your family (or lack thereof).  Also, include what hopes you have for the future.  How do you plan to respond to your enslavement?  What factors might go into your decision (family, potential punishment, or anything else)?  Write at least one or two pages to demonstrate that you understand the experiences of enslaved women.  You can focus more on one specific aspect of this letter but attempt to both reflect on your experience and speculate on the future.

(This assignment can be done at the end of class or for homework)

Future Research / Resources

For an extension activity, the teacher could assign the students to research the lives of other members of the Hemings family and other enslaved persons who lived at Monticello. is an excellent resource that has all the known information about every member of the Hemings family and many others that lived on the plantation.  Follow the link through to search for specific members of the Hemings family.  The link below is from the Monticello website under the People Enslaved at Monticello tab.  From that point, the instruction and assessment can take various forms such as a short research paper that answers the research questions below.

Specifications: Teachers can use these or adopt any additional requirements:

  1. 12 Point Font, 1-inch margin, Double-spaced, and 1 Page in length

Research Questions/Prompt:

  1. Did they ever gain their independence?  If so, how?
  2. How were they treated by Jefferson and his family?
  3. What were some of the most important experiences of their lives?
  4. Did any plantation staff or visitors ever comment on their presence or appearance?  If so, what did they write about them?

The response should be detailed and provide evidence of contextual understanding of the period.




Common Core Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

C3 Standards:

  • D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
  • D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.
  • D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
  • D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.