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Simmons as SallyLong before the DNA provided the genetic link between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, Cynthia Simmons was telling her story. In the late ‘70s when Cynthia began looking for a historical character she could develop into a one-character play that would showcase her range as an actress. A friend suggested Sally Hemings. Cynthia had never heard of her but found the few details her friend provide about Sally's life intriguing—Sally had had a long-term relationship with Thomas Jefferson and had been the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife.

Cynthia began research on Sally Hemings, hoping to discover her journals or letters—material that would provide insight into both Sally’s life and her character. Nothing like this materialized. Miscegenation, especially when it involved a prominent man, was a hush-hush subject. Although the debate about a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave actually begin in 1802 when the Richmond Recorder hinted at this scandal in its September 1st edition:

"It is well known that the man whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps and for many years has kept as his mistress, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally. The name of her eldest son is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking though sable resemblance to those of the President himself. The boy is said to be ten or twelve."

a cloud of secrecy enshrouded Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship. During his lifetime Jefferson neither confirmed or denied these or subsequent accusations. His legitimate descendants, through his daughter Martha, passed down the family denial that the Hemings children resembling the President were fathered by one of his nephews, Peter or Samuel Carr.

The research didn't yield much, and after two years had only generated a scant outline of Sally’s life. Cynthia tried to collaborate with writers but didn't discover any who shared her perspective. She'd taken playwriting classes in collge and finally decided to write the piece herself.

A grant from the Fulton County Arts Commission enabled Cynthia to premiere Sally Of Monticello in Atlanta, Georgia in November of '83 as a fund raising event for the Alma Simmons Memorial Arts Gallery, a gallery dedicated to the memory of her mother, who was an artist and an educator. Sally has subsequently been performed at various colleges, universities and community theatres throughout the United States, at BACA Downtown in New York, in West Germany at the Pariser Hoftheatre (Wiesbaden) and The Five Pfenning Playhouse (Hanau), at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, at HooverFest in West Branch, Iowa and at the Ruth Seaton James Centre for the Performing Arts in Bermuda. A taped performance of Sally of Monticello in Springfield, Massachusetts was a featured selection for their Continental Cable station in 1985. In 1995, a three-part radio drama of Sally of Monticello aired in New York on radio station WBAI.

Ms. Simmons is no longer performing Sally but the play is available for booking through the New Federal Theatre/National Black Touring Circuit, natblktc@aol.com, 212 353-1176/212 283-0974. Cynthia is, however, available to share her journey, Sally of Monticello from Conception to Stage. This discussion, followed by a question and answer session with the audience, will include readings from her play. Contact Cynthia for more information.

The following links provide additional information about Sally Hemings:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/cron/1873march.html
http://www.angelfire.com/oh/chillicothe/formerslaves.html
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/

Click here for an excerpt from the play Sally of Monticello.