James Hemings (1765-1801) was an enslaved man from Virginia. He is famous for being Sally Hemings' older brother and for being Thomas Jefferson's chef, or head cook, while he was in Paris. Jefferson freed him when he was 30 years old. He died at age 36. He may have killed himself.
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Early life and familyEdit
James Hemings was the son of an enslaved woman called Elizabeth "Betty" Hemings and a white man named John Wayles. According to one of her grandchildren, Elizabeth Hemings was Wales' concubine. This means they had a sexual relationship, and she was not his wife.
According to James' nephew, Madison Hemings, Elizabeth Hemings' mother was an African woman who might have been born in Africa. She was enslaved to the Eppes family in Virginia. Historians do not know for sure what her name was. Papers with the names of enslaved women in the Eppes family include "Dinah," "Judy," "Abbie," "Sarah," "Parthenia," and others. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed said that there were many girls named "Thenia" in the Hemings family, and they might have been named after Parthenia. But she also says that "Sally" is a nickname for "Sarah," and there were many girls named "Sarah" and "Sally" in the Hemings family too.
Madison Hemings told the story: Elizabeth Hemings' mother was an African woman and her father was an English sea captain named Hemings. The sea captain tried to buy Elizabeth Hemings from her owner, but the owner said no. He said he wanted to see what a half-white, half-African child would look like. Then Captain Hemings tried to take the child away from the owner without paying, but someone told the owner about his plan. Captain Hemings left Virginia and did not come back.
Captain Hemings tried to take his daughter from one of the men in the Eppes family, but historians do not know which one because they do not know when Elizabeth Hemings was born. One paper says "about 1735."
Elizabeth Hemings lived at the Eppes family's house, which was called Bermuda Hundred, until 1746. That year, Martha Eppes married John Wayles. Elizabeth and many other enslaved people went with Martha to Wayles' house as part of her marriage settlement. A marriage settlement was any property that a married woman could control and her husband couldn't. In Virginia in the 1700s, many marriage settlements had enslaved people in them. Technically, the Eppes family owned Elizabeth Hemings.
Elizabeth Hemings had 12 children. The father of most of those children, including James, was John Wayles. John Wayles also had children with his wife, Martha Eppes. This made James Hemings the half-brother of Martha Wayles Skelton, who married Thomas Jefferson.
When Martha Wayles Skelton married Jefferson, Hemings and 134 other enslaved people went with Martha Skelton to Jefferson's house at Monticello. They were part of her own marriage settlement. James Hemings was 9 years old.
The Hemings family was the largest family at Monticello. James grew up with his mother, brothers and sisters around him. Unlike other enslaved people, Hemingses did not do much farm work. The women sewed and made clothes. Jefferson hired teachers so the Hemings' boys would learn jobs to do. For example, he paid for Robert Hemings to learn to be a barber.
Historian Annette Gordon-Reed wrote that the Hemings brothers did not live the same way as other enslaved men: Jefferson spent a lot of time away from Monticello. He told his white overseers that, while he was away, they should leave the Hemingses alone. Jefferson let James and his brothers go where they wanted so long as they came back when he told them to. James was allowed to look for jobs in Virginia, choose where to work, and keep his money. There are papers showing James Hemings would rent a horse to ride from town to town. But it was Jefferson who made these choices: The law said James Hemings was a slave. It said James Hemings could only do these things because Jefferson said he could.
Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia in 1779 during the American Revolutionary War. The capital of Virginia changed. First it was Williamsburg, Virginia and then it was Richmond, Virginia. James and his brother Robert went with Jefferson to Richmond to work for him. When Benedict Arnold led British troops to attack Richmond in 1781, James and Robert took Martha Jefferson and her daughters away from the city.
When Thomas Jefferson went to France to be ambassador, he took James Hemings with him. Because Jefferson was an ambassador, he had to have guests come to his to eat. Those meals had to be very good. Jefferson paid for James Hemings to have cooking lessons from French chefs. One of his teachers was Monsieur Combeaux. Another of his teachers was the same man who cooked for the Prince de Condé. After about 19 months, James Hemings had learned enough to lead the kitchen at Jefferson's Paris house. The house was called the Hôtel de Langeac.
After Jefferson had been in Paris for a while, he wanted his other daughter to come live in Paris too. He wrote to his relatives and told them to send this daughter to Paris from Virginia. She was named Maria, but people called her "Polly." James' sister Sally Hemings came with Polly from Virginia. Sally Hemings fourteen when she arrived in Paris and Polly was nine. Sally Hemings stayed as a paid servant at the Hôtel de Langeac. We do not know when Thomas Jefferson began having sex with Sally Hemings, but she was pregnant when she was sixteen years old.
When James Hemings lived in Paris, Jefferson paid him as if he were a free man. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed says this could be because Jefferson did not want anyone to know Hemings was an enslaved person. The laws of France in the 1770s and 1780s did not allow people to keep slaves in France. People who brought slaves to France had to either send them out of the country or free them within a certain time. Enslaved people who knew about this law could go to the admiralty court and ask the French government to say they were free. The judge at the admiralty court for Paris almost always agreed that the person was free. Gordon-Reed says James Hemings could have stayed in Paris if he had wanted to. There were about 1000 black people living in Paris at the time, and French aristocrats liked to employ them. Hemings could have worked as a chef or cook.
Gordon-Reed says that if Hemings had gone to the admiralty court, Jefferson and the United States would have looked bad in front of the French. She also says that if Jefferson had freed the Hemings brother and sister, it would have made Jefferson and the United States look good in front of the French.
However, neither of these two things happened. According to Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson's son, Madison, Sally and James Hemings talked to Jefferson. Jefferson, James Hemings and Sally Hemings made a deal in private: Jefferson promised to free all of Sally Hemings's children, whether he was their father or not. Jefferson promised to free James Hemings after he had taught more people at Monticello how to cook in the French way.
James Hemings came back to America with Jefferson. Soon, Jefferson was made Secretary of State. Again, he needed to have important people over for dinner. James Hemings was his chef. Jefferson paid Hemings the same wage as the free people who worked for him: seven dollars a month. The capital of the United States changed from New York City to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1790. The law of Pennsylvania said that if slave owners brought slaves to Pennsylvania, then those slaves were free after six months. (Enslaved people who ran away to Pennsylvania were not free, even after six months.) James Hemings was in Philidelphia for more than six months. Again, he could have gone to court and asked the judge to say he was a free man if he had wanted to. We do not know why he did not.
While Jefferson and Hemings were in Pennsylvania, Jefferson wrote a contract:
Having been at great expence in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery, desiring to befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible, I do hereby promise and declare, that if the said James shall go with me to Monticello in the course of the ensuing winter, when I go to reside there myself, and shall there continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for that purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall be thereupon made free, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free. Given under my hand and seal in the county of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania this 15th. day of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.
Because I paid so much money for James Hemings to learn to cook and because I want to be nice to him, I promise I will free James Hemings if he comes back to Virginia with me this winter and teaches someone else to be my cook. As soon as he has done this, I will make him free. I will write and sign whatever papers I need to. I am making this agreement as official as I can. We're making this agreement in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 15, 1793.
Jefferson freed James Hemings in 1796 after he had taught his brother Peter to be a chef.
James traveled. He might have gone back to Paris. If he did, he found most of his old friends were dead and the city was very different. Jefferson met him again in Philadelphia.
Jefferson won the United States presidential election of 1800. He wanted James Hemings to come and work for him and be his chef again. He asked a friend to find Hemings in Baltimore and tell him to come north. Hemings sent letters back with the friend, but Jefferson never wrote to James himself. We do not know if Hemings did not want to be President Jefferson's chef or if Jefferson only thought he did not want to. However, James Hemings did work for Jefferson again, at Monticello, in 1801. He was paid $30 for a few weeks of work.
James Hemings died in 1801. It is not clear if he killed himself. One idea was that he died from drinking too much. Gordon-Reed says that head chefs who ran kitchens, like James Hemings did, could become alcoholics. This was because chefs were allowed to drink alcohol from the house kitchens. It was also because there was a lot of pressure in the job. Other historians say that a black man, even a free black men, in the late 1700s and early 1800s had a very, very hard life.
- "James Hemings". Monticello. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
- Robert Fikes (August 23, 2020). "James Hemings (1765-1801)". Blackpast. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
- Farah Stockman (June 16, 2018). "Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson's Relationship With Sally Hemings". New York Times. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
- "The Life of Sally Hemings". Monticello.org. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
- Annette Gordon-Reed (2008). The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: Norton.
- Lucia Cinder Stanton. "Jefferson's "Family"". PBS. Retrieved September 18, 2021.