Survivor Stories

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives. “ ~Audre Lorde

February is Black History Month, and as such, we felt it would be a great time to talk about one of the key findings in the Sexual Assault Demonstration Initiative: the intersection of oppression and sexual violence. Oppression is at the root of sexual violence, and survivors are affected by many forms of oppression including racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism. To better understand this connection, we’d like to share with you a story at the intersection of racism and sexual violence in our nation’s history.

Sally Hemings’ was born into slavery the daughter of an enslaved woman and a white slave-trader. Like her mother before her, and countless other enslaved women, Sally Hemings gave birth to multiple children fathered by her enslaver. Children born to enslaved women, regardless of their paternity, were born and treated as slaves. At the age of 14, Hemings was brought to Paris as a chambermaid to Thomas Jefferson’s daughter and soon after was forced, coerced, and exploited into a sexual relationship with Jefferson. Two years later when Jefferson was ready to return to Virginia, a pregnant Hemings initially refused to leave France where slavery had been abolished. After negotiating for her future children’s freedom, Hemings agreed to return to life in slavery in Virginia.  As a slave, Hemings did not have the privilege of self-determination, and had no legal right to refuse Jefferson’s sexual advances. Due to the power imbalance between an enslaved woman and her slaver, as well as the fact that white men at the time faced no legal ramifications for the rape of a black woman, a consensual sexual relationship would have been impossible; to refuse could be dangerous, even fatal, for an enslaved woman. Her story is like many other enslaved women of her time; however, her resiliency empowered her to negotiate for liberation of her children upon their 21st birthday. Hemings’ story was unacknowledged and discredited for many years due to systemic racism and sexism still in place today until Harvard professor and historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s work persuaded the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to conduct DNA testing which concluded a “high probability” of his relationship to Hemings’ children

As we celebrate Black History Month this February, let us remember survivors like Hemings whose stories were forgotten, untold, and hidden. Let their resilience and tenacity in the face of oppression be a reminder for all of us to step up for survivors in our own communities, to support, believe, and empower them to lead self-determined lives. To learn more about Sally Hemings, you can find Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed at a bookstore near you. Additionally, ICESAHT is building a resource library and drafting statewide service standards to connect you with education and resources you will need to provide more inclusive and accessible services to all survivors. Please email haleigh@indianacesa.org to request information.

Don’t forget to register for ICESAHT’s training HONORING, BUILDING, AND SUSTAINING BLACK RESILIENCE: STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, AND THE BLACK COMMUNITY IN INDIANA to be held Wednesday February 13th at Butler University!