NBC News called Sally Hemings Thomas Jefferson's mistress. She was his slave.
On Monday morning, NBC News tweeted that archaeologists had finally discovered the sleeping quarters of Sally Hemings, an enslaved black woman who was forced to work for founding father and former United States President Thomas Jefferson.
There was one glaring problem with the tweet: It referred to Hemings, who most historians believe bore at least six of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress.” In reality, she was his slave.
Twitter users quickly began replying to the tweet to challenge NBC News’ mischaracterization of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. As one user points out, “Sally Hemings was [Jefferson’s] slave. There wasn’t a choice or consent. She was not his mistress. She was his victim.”
Though the actual headline of the article does note that Hemings was a slave, it still calls her Jefferson’s mistress, a word that in some cases denotes power and authority and, in a romantic or sexual capacity, connotes agency or at least consent.
South of the Mason-Dixon line in antebellum America, black slaves were considered property. In the context of the racist, evil law that suspended all of their rights, they could not consent. The rape of black slave women at the hands of their white slaveowners was a common form violence used to assert the power of the white ruling class of the U.S.
Whether or not the tweet intended to do so, it continued what some contend to be a pattern of some figures in the media whitewashing the horrors of slavery.
In July 2016, shortly after former first lady Michelle Obama noted correctly that the White House — where she and then-President Barack Obama lived — was built by slaves, some took issue with her factually accurate statement.
Perhaps the most prominent of those to refute Obama’s statement was then-not-disgraced pundit Bill O’Reilly, who on his show suggested that slaves “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
It isn’t just the mainstream media; it’s schools: In 2015, the Texas Board of Education was roundly criticized for “downplaying the brutality of [slavery] and treating it as a ‘side-issue,” according to Jezebel. David Levin, CEO of textbook company McGraw-Hill, wrote a letter to his employees in which he apologized for referring to slaves as “workers” in a recent edition of one of his company’s books.
But just as those “millions of workers” weren’t actually workers, Sally Hemings wasn’t actually Jefferson’s “mistress,” despite any sexual relationship they may have had. She toiled at Monticello against her will. No historian would dispute that basic fact.