There are some aspects about which everyone seems to agree regarding Sally Hemings.
The first is that she was a stone fox. Around the Monticello plantation where she grew up she was called “Dashing Sally” by the time she was about age 15.
When she arrived in Paris with President Jefferson, she captivated people. This is also something absolutely everyone agreed upon.
And then there are some other facts we know.
We know that Sally Hemings was born around 1773. She was the child of the slave Betty Hemings and planter John Wayles, who was her master. When Sally was about one year old, John Wayles died and his slaves were inherited by Thomas Jefferson and his new wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. Martha was John’s daughter and so a half-sister to Sally but I don’t think they really acknowledged that relationship.
The slaves were moved to Monticello. Thomas and Martha Jefferson apparently had a happy marriage on the estate. He played the violin and she accompanied him on the piano. They had six children but only two daughters survived to adulthood. Then, about ten years after their marriage, Martha died at age 33. Jefferson was distraught, supposedly heartbroken over the loss of his wife. He shut himself away. He paced. Maybe I’m making that up, maybe not, but pacing feels right. He never remarried. He did go on to have well documented love affairs with a series of other women, including Betsey Walker and Maria Cosway, both of whom were married. (That’s not really relevant to Sally’s story, but if you want to get into the “Jefferson was an immoral man” camp right this moment, I thought it would be a good piece of information for you.)
We also know that Sally became the companion to Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Polly. Sally was considered very sweet natured and was well liked by the family. She moved with the family to Paris in 1787, where Jefferson was the United States Ambassador to France. Her brother, James Hemings, also went to Paris to train as a chef. Sally was quickly absorbed with the culture of the city. Annette Gordon-Reed writes in her biography, The Hemings at Monticello:
While James Hemings was busy plying his trade, his younger sister had little to do but absorb the routine of the household. This meant getting used to the other servants, who spoke another language and had their own cultural manners. Having no apparent role in the operations of the residence for long stretches of time, she was essentially cast as an observer, watching what other people did to make things run smoothly at the place.
From her perspective that may not have been at all a bad thing, rather a source of immense joy as her nonessential status left her free to experience her new surroundings in more of her own way…
One of the things Hemings learned fairly early on was how it felt to receive pay for one’s work. In January of 1788 she received her first recorded wages—twenty-four livres, plus an additional twelve as a New Year’s tip. Hemings did not receive pay again until November; and when she did, the wage was half that of her brother, Jefferson having concluded that this was the appropriate rate. Despite the cut, Hemings’s salary for the rest of her time in Paris was actually well above that of the average female live-in servant in France.
There are no indications what her job was.
But she did not spend all her time in France (where she resided for two years) just flitting around and absorbing French customs and being paid for a very ambiguous job.