MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, who is also a professor at Tulane University, recently had a CSPAN crew record her course The Role of First Ladies in US History. And while that my sound non-controversial, Harris-Perry made sure it wasn’t for long before she introduced the idea that Thomas Jefferson’s alleged mistress, Sally Hemmings, should be included in a list of First Ladies.
Harris-Perry introduced Hemings, Jefferson’s slave, as “our enslaved First Lady.” Perry’s rationale is that since Jefferson might have sired children with Hemings, an account that some question and one that the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society refutes, she is entitled to the the title.
Still, Professor Perry states that Hemings “obviously had a multiple decade relationship with Jefferson” and that Jefferson was president some of that time. Some of her students agreed with the premise, adding that Jefferson and his family all “considered her the First Lady.” Perry notes that Hemings was never in the White House but regularly “sitting with and talking with people” at Monticello and not off in a corner somewhere.
She then shows pictures of the “Hemings/Jefferson descendants.” Noting that they are “clearly people who probably self-identify as white and some who self-identify” as people of color to buffer her point, Perry cites that all are “as a matter of DNA” Jefferson’s descendants. Perry doubles down (without citing specific evidence) and says of the picture: “these are the people who came from Sally Hemings and Jefferson.” (Ignoring the fact there are those who argue DNA test only prove some of Heming’s descendants came from someone in Jefferson’s family, not Jefferson himself.)
Perry then asks the class if there is anyone who does not consider Hemings as a First Lady.
One student semi-obliges, arguing that she “wants to call Hemings the First Lady” but since Jefferson’s daughter was officially playing that role it would be “difficult” to call her that officially. Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Washington Jefferson Randolph, is the official first lady of historical record and replaced what would have been her mother in the position. Mrs. Jefferson died 19 years before her husband became president.
Perry ended by arguing that a perspective of Jefferson and Hemings being in a “common law marriage” would change our image of who Jefferson was and what his presidency was about.
Perry hosts the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC that airs on the weekends.
Watch the discussion below: