In his book Over My Dead Body Greg Melville talks about our new tendency to burn rather than bury human bodies. He states on page 200 that, “During the height of the first COVID wave in 2020, cities like New York and Los Angeles made the grim decision to relax the daily limits on cremations to handle the overwhelming demand despite the emissions.” More about cremation coming later, while COVID is still with us.
However, today I’m focused on Sally Hemings. She was a slave but was owned by no less than Thomas Jefferson. He was the 2nd President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson is buried at his home in Virginia called Monticello. Jefferson was married to a woman named Martha but he had other relationships. Sally was his lover with whom he had 6 children. He had others with his wife Martha. Sally was her half sister. This was not unusual for this era. James Madison, who also became President had a plantation called Montpelier, and his family enslaved more than 300 people. He became America’s 4th President.
Thomas Jefferson was no racist. He was simply a man of his times. His plantation, Monticello, had an African American graveyard. There are about 40 enslaved adults and children buried in this graveyard. It’s likely that members of the Hemings family are among them but not Sally. She was allowed to leave Monticello by Jefferson’s daughter named Martha and was living in Charlottesville with her freed son Eston. According to Greg Melville, Jefferson is buried under an obelisk of his own design at Monticello. He inscribed his own words on it to ensure that future generations would know how he wanted to be remembered. It reads, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson author of the Declaration of American Independence….” Previously he had stated that “All men are created equal.” Burials in the African American graveyard could only be done in the dark, Sally was never among them, and no written grave markers were allowed.
So where is Sally buried? That is unknown. It has never been recorded, but Melville has a theory. During this century, big box retail chains like Walmart have become the new predators of Native burial grounds, and they are used to winning lawsuits allowing them to build atop” ancient indiginous sacred sites” in places like Nashville, TN among others. That being the case, Sally may have been interred behind her son’s house in Charlottesville. If that’s the case “her body today lies beneath the parking lot of a Hampton Inn.” She died in 1835.