In Arts & Mysteries

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John Hemings started life as an enslaved carpenter at Monticello, home of President Thomas Jefferson. His Mother Betty, the daughter of a slave ship Captain and an unknown African woman, belonged to Jefferson’s father in law (John Wayles). After the father in law’s third wife died, Wayles took Betty to his bed. She bore several children by her master, including the now famous Sally Hemings. When the father in law died, Jefferson inherited Betty Hemings and her children including Sally, and James, who would become Jefferson’s French chef.

Shortly after her arrival in Monticello, Betty gave birth to John Hemings with an Irish joiner employed by Jefferson. According to Monticello’s website, John worked as an “out-carpenter” felling trees and mending fences. This was rough, crude work (that many of us would probably enjoy). But at the time it was a tough job, befitting a slave. We’re not sure how it happened; It may be that his father trained him, but John learned the trade of a joiner. He later trained under (another?) Irish Joiner James Dinsmore (at Monticello 1798-1809) and it’s likely the two completed a good deal of Monticello’s fine interiors.

After his term as President, Jefferson turned his attention to furnishing Monticello. Strapped for cash and stuck with expensive taste, Jefferson commissioned John Hemings to make a variety of high quality furniture. Jefferson’s tastes seem to blend what we sometimes call “plain and neat” Southern Chippendale and French furniture. It’s believed that Hemings made several “Campeachy Chairs” for Jefferson.

Campeachy Chair. Attributed to John Hemmings. From Monticello’s website.

When Dinsmore left Monticello in 1809, he inventoried the joinery. Contents can be seen here.

Archeolgocial excavation of slave quarters in Monticello have suggested that Jefferson’s slaves may have had access to some niceties such as porcelin and other domestic comforts. I hasten to add that such indications in no way invalidate the harshness of life for enslaved people. But they do suggest that enslaved Africans, at least in Monticello, might have experienced a wide range of social status and life style. I don’t know of specific archeological finds associated with John Hemings, but I expect that he may have lived a very different life from the average enslaved farm hand.

The business relationship between Hemings and Jefferson is not entirely clear to me. I believe I recall hearing that Hemings was paid the profit for the work he performed for Jefferson. Jefferson owned the man and may not have felt it was necessary to pay him his labor. Keep in mind that Jefferson fed, housed, and clothed the man, built his shop and paid for all of his tools. His labor wasn’t exactly free to Jefferson. If it is true that Jefferson compensated his slave John Hemings for his work, this complicates my understanding of slavery and precisely what folks involved in the practice thought about it.

To further complicate things, note that John was only 1/4 African. His half sister Sally was taken for caucasian in Paris. By our definition, we may not consider John to be “black”. But I’ve included him in my version of Black (woodworking) History month because he illustrates the many ambiguities of African slavery in the 18th c and offers us an example of the breadth of diversity within the enslaved population.

Upon his death, Jefferson freed John Hemings. Moreover, Jefferson sought to allow Hemings the right to remain in the state of Virginia (Va state law insisted that freed slaves leave the state within 12 months or face re-enslavement). I always felt that Jefferson, said to be “undemonstrative” by (his son) Madison Hemings, may have felt a special connection to John. He was Sally’s half brother. And I think men bond when they work together. I picture Jefferson enthused about the furniture John was making, the repairs, and improvments made to Monticello. We know he loved architecture and design. Perhaps it was this relationship that influenced his decision to free John. It also may have been pragmatic. As a skilled artisan, John would have had opportunities in the free world that a beloved field hand or house servant would not. In short, a freed African woodworker had a better chance of survival than a farm saavy field hand. And that says a lot about our craft.


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Showing 3 comments
  • Wesley Tanner

    What a wonderful essay. Thank you.


  • Warren Mickley

    Two of Jefferson’s sons, Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings, were also joiners or cabinetmakers and followed that trade after Jefferson died and they were freed. I think it is likely that John Hemings trained them. I think it is only fair to point out that Jefferson was a widower for some some years before he took up with Sally, his wife’s half sister. He was prohibited by Virginia law (1691) from marrying her. I remember when that law was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967.


  • Mike Holden

    Thank you, Mike

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