James Hemings

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James Hemings
Born 1765
Guinea, Cumberland County, Virginia
Died 1801 (aged 35–36)
Baltimore, Maryland
Nationality American
Occupation Chef de cuisine, cook
Parents Betty Hemings, John Wayles
Relatives Sally Hemings, John Hemings, Mary Hemings, Madison Hemings, Eston Hemings, Frederick Madison Roberts, John Wayles Jefferson

James Hemings (1765 – 1801) was an American mixed-race slave owned and freed by Thomas Jefferson. He was an older brother of Sally Hemings and is said to have been a half-sibling of Jefferson's wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson because their father was John Wayles.[1] As a young man, Hemings was selected by Jefferson to accompany him to Paris when the latter was appointed Minister to France. There Hemings was trained to be a French chef; independently, he took lessons to learn to speak the French language.

He returned to the United States with Jefferson, likely because of kinship ties with his large Hemings family. Jefferson continued to pay Hemings wages as his chef when he worked for the president in Philadelphia. Hemings negotiated with Jefferson for his freedom, which he gained in 1796, after training his brother Peter for three years to replace him as chef. Said to suffer from alcoholism,[2] Hemings committed suicide at age 36.[2]

Biography[edit]

Main articles: Betty Hemings and Sally Hemings

Early life and education[edit]

James Hemings was born into slavery to Betty Hemings, who was the mixed-race daughter of Susannah, an enslaved African mother, and John Hemings, an English sea captain father. James was the second of her six children said to be by her master John Wayles, who took Betty as a concubine after he was widowed for the third time. They had a relationship for 12 years, until his death, and he had a "shadow family" of six children with her. They were three-quarters European by ancestry. Betty had four older children by another man. Wayles died in 1773, leaving Betty and her 10 children to his daughter Martha Jefferson, half-sister to his children by Betty. Martha was then married to Thomas Jefferson, who also inherited them by marriage.[1]

In 1784 Thomas Jefferson took James Hemings with him when he went to Paris as Minister of France, as he wanted the young man, then 19, trained as a chef. While they were in France, Jefferson paid Hemings a wage of four dollars per month. Hemings studied cooking and apprenticed to pastry chefs and other specialists. He paid personally to learn the language from a French tutor. He earned the role of chef de cuisine in Jefferson's kitchen on the Champs-Elysées. He served his creations to the European aristocrats, writers and scientists whom Jefferson invited to dinner.[3][4]

Career[edit]

In Paris, Jefferson became concerned that Hemings might learn that he could be free when France had abolished slavery in 1789. He wrote about this issue to another American slaveholder in a similar situation. According to the 1873 memoir of Madison Hemings, his uncle James and (future) mother Sally actively considered staying in France for freedom while they were in Paris. (Sally Hemings had accompanied one of Jefferson's daughters to France and worked for the family until they returned to the United States.) While fearful of their seeking freedom, Jefferson, who was in debt for most of his life, was also concerned about having paid for training James.[5][6]

In 1789, however, both the Hemingses returned to America with Jefferson; he continued to pay James wages to work as his chef. They first returned to Monticello. They lived briefly in a leased house on Maiden Lane in New York City (when the national government was based there), where James Hemings ran the kitchen. In the spring of 1791, when James Hemings and Jefferson were resident in Philadelphia, then the capital, the young slave accompanied Jefferson and James Madison on a month-long vacation in the Northeast. The party traveled through New York and Vermont, stopping at Albany, Lake George, Lake Champlain and Bennington. Jefferson often entrusted Hemings to travel alone ahead of the others to arrange accommodations along the way.[7] After returning south through western Massachusetts and Connecticut, Jefferson and Hemings returned for a long-term stay in Philadelphia.

As Pennsylvania did not allow slavery, Jefferson paid Hemings a wage while he worked there. After two years in Philadelphia, Jefferson made plans to return to Virginia. Reluctant to return to a slave state, Hemings negotiated a contract with Jefferson by which he would gain freedom after training a replacement chef at Monticello to take his place.[3][5][8]

In the 1793 agreement, Jefferson wrote:

Having been at great expence [sic] 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 hereby do promise & declare, that if the said James should 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 thereupon be made free...[9]

Considering that Hemings had served Jefferson well for years, some historians have described this as a grudging manumission.[2]

For two years, Hemings trained his younger brother Peter, also born into slavery, as chef at Monticello, and finally gained his freedom in 1796. He spoke French and English and was literate; his handwritten inventory of kitchen supplies made before he left Monticello is held by the Library of Congress. He also left recipes and other writings.[3] After traveling to Europe, Hemings eventually returned to the United States, where he found work as a cook in Philadelphia.[10]

In 1801, Jefferson offered Hemings a position at the White House, which the young man refused. Hemings returned briefly to Monticello to work in the kitchen. After a month and a half, Jefferson paid him thirty dollars, and Hemings left. Later, while employed as a cook in a tavern in Baltimore, he committed suicide, at age 36.[11][12]

Jefferson's friend William Evans in Baltimore made inquiries, and on November 5, 1801, he wrote:

The report respecting James Hemings having committed an act of suicide is true. I made every inquiry at the time this melancholy circumstance took place. The result of which was, that he had been delirious for some days prior to committing the act, and it was the general opinion that drinking too freely was the cause.[13]

On November 9, 1801, Jefferson wrote from Washington, DC to James Dinsmore, the Irish joiner managing much of the construction at Monticello, recounting the circumstances of Hemings' death, presumably with instructions to tell his mother Betty and his brother John, who was Dinsmore's assistant. On December 4, 1801, Jefferson wrote to his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, characterizing Hemings' death as a "tragical end." [14]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Berkes, Anna; et al. "John Wayles". Monticello Foundation. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  2. ^ a b c "James Hemings". monticello.org. Retrieved April 25, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c "James Hemings", Plantation & Slavery/Hemings Family, Monticello, accessed March 10, 2011
  4. ^ Nelson, Davia; Silva, Nikki (2008-02-19). "Hercules and Hemings: Presidents' Slave Chefs". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  5. ^ a b Craig, Bryan; et al. "James Hemings". Monticello Foundation. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  6. ^ David G. McCullough, John Adams, pp. 319, 419
  7. ^ Randall, Willard Sterne. "Jefferson Takes a Vacation". American Heritage Magazine. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  8. ^ Ernest Milton Halliday, Understanding Thomas Jefferson, p. 111
  9. ^ Jefferson, Thomas. "James Hemings contract". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2008-07-29. [dead link]
  10. ^ "Life and Labor at Monticello". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  11. ^ "Monticello Explorer, James Hemings". Monticello Foundation. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  12. ^ Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, p. 222
  13. ^ William Evans to Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 5, 1801, quoted in Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder, p. 222
  14. ^ Jefferson, Thomas. "Letter From Jefferson to Randolph, 12/04/1804". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello, Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2000.

External links[edit]