James Hemings was born enslaved, brought to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate when he was just nine years old with his siblings and mother, Elizabeth Hemings, Monticello.org reports. Jefferson inherited the Hemings family from his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson’s estate. Six of Elizabeth Hemings’ children were conceived by John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, making James Hemings the younger half-brother-in-law of Thomas Jefferson. The Hemings family made up the largest family at Monticello, free or enslaved, many of them forced to work as domestic workers or tradespeople for Jefferson.
Hemings and his brother Robert became the personal attendants to Jefferson in 1779 after he was elected as wartime governor of Virginia. In 1781, when Benedict Arnold sent threats to attack Richmond, it was Hemings and Robert who were responsible for escorting Jefferson’s wife and children to safety. When Jefferson was away, Hemings was allowed to work other gigs and keep his wages, something that was abnormal for those who were enslaved. Despite this particular modicum of freedom, Hemings was still very aware that he was enslaved and considered the legal property of Jefferson.
When Jefferson was preparing to travel to France, he decided to take Hemings with him so he could be trained in “the art of cookery.” In May 1784, he sent a letter requesting that Hemings meet him in Philadelphia, and from there they traveled to Paris. Jefferson was appointed American minister to the French court and tasked William Short, who would work as his secretary abroad, with locating Hemings. At the time, Hemings was working in Richmond as a valet for an acquaintance of Jefferson’s. Receiving the message, he traveled back to Monticello to say farewell to his loved ones before his lengthy trip. Hemings then traveled to Philadelphia to meet Jefferson and his oldest daughter Martha, sailing from the Boston harbor to Paris on July 5, 1784.
Once in Paris, Hemings was immediately trained in the art of French dining, studying with restaurateur Monsieur Combeaux before studying under pastry chefs and then working as a chef in the home of Prince de Condé. Hemings stayed there three years, learning as much as he could before landing a job as the head chef at the Hôtel de Langeac where Jefferson resided, doubling as the American embassy. While serving there, Hemings served a variety of public figures including international guests, authors, scientists, politicians and European aristocrats. For his work, Hemings was paid 24 livres a month, the equivalent of about $30 today. While his wages and occasional gratuity were more than what he made in the U.S., it was only half of what Jefferson paid his former chef.
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Still, Hemings did what he could, using his pay to hire a French tutor so he could learn the language. His mastery of French served him well in the country, helping him to navigate it easier. History shows that the late 18th century brought some political unrest, France speaking out on human rights and personal liberty. It is highly likely that Hemings also took notice of that discourse, also making himself aware of the French law that allowed those who were enslaved, even those from another country, to petition the courts to grant their freedom. While there is no record of Hemings ever hiring an attorney, it is possible that he did have the means. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the French Revolution, he returned to the United States with Jefferson without his freedom.
The next couple of years would prove complex for Hemings. He had made history as the first Black French-trained chef, opening his first American restaurant inside a small kitchen at 57 Maiden Lane in New York City in March 1790. Hemings became a national treasure, responsible for Americanizing a number of French dishes here in the states that he didn’t get credit for for years to come. Four popular dishes brought to America by the first French-trained Black chef include french fries, firm ice cream, meringue, and macaroni & cheese.
By this time, Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State, and their stay in New York was cut short once the government moved to Philadelphia in December of that same year. Hemings was responsible for preparing dinner for all types of dignitaries including the President, European diplomats, congressmen, and Jefferson’s peers. By this time, Hemings made about $7 a month, the same as those staff members who were free. Hemings was also allotted money to make purchases for the kitchen and buy with other free and enslaved tradesmen.
Hemings’ ability to move about in the world was likely the cause of his own torment, especially in a state like Pennsylvania where those who were enslaved could claim their freedom if they stayed for more than six months. Records show that there were multiple periods where he stayed in Philadelphia longer, one notable time being from October 22, 1791 to July 13, 1792, where Hemings regularly appeared in Jefferson’s accounting records. In 1793, Jefferson finally drafted an agreement to manumit Hemings.
“Having been at great expense in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery, desiring to befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible, I do hereby promise and declare, that if the said James shall go with me to Monticello in the course of the ensuing winter, when I go to reside there myself, and shall there continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for that purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall be thereupon made free, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free. Given under my hand and seal in the county of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania the 15th. Day of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety three,” the agreement reads.
The agreement could’ve been the reason Hemings never petitioned for his freedom in Paris or Philadelphia, Jefferson agreeing possibly verbally before formally drafting up the letter. As long as Hemings taught another person of Jefferson’s choosing to be a good cook, he would be free. Hemings did just that, passing his skills to his brother Peter Hemings. It would be another two years before Jefferson would honor his agreement, setting Hemings free on February 5, 1796.
Hemings would do some traveling after obtaining his freedom before settling in Baltimore. By 1801, Jefferson had been elected President and by all accounts, he believed that Hemings would return to work for him as a free man. However, Hemings’ one request when Jefferson petitioned him via messengers was that the President write to him himself.
“I have spoke to James according to your desire he has made mention again as he did before that he was willing to serve you before any other man in the Union but sence he understands that he would have to be among strange servants he would be very much obliged to you if you would send him a few lines of engagement and on what conditions and wages you would please to give him with your own handwriting,” Francis Sayes, a former employee, wrote Jefferson regarding Hemings.
However, Jefferson never engaged Hemings directly, choosing instead to continue speaking with intermediaries and eventually hiring a native French chef as his replacement. Hemings returned to Monticello once again that same year, receiving $30 for six weeks of work. His family remained enslaved at Monticello and Hemings left the estate for the last time after the summer of 1801. Two months later, Hemings passed away as a result of suicide, his death coming as a shock to peers, family and Jefferson alike.
Despite Hemings’ fraught existence, his legacy remains in history as one of the first celebrity chefs and a pioneer in modern American cuisine. Hemings serves as the forefather for generations of African American chefs today and while we enjoy the dishes he made popular so many centuries ago, we also honor his life and his legacy.
Peace, love, light and progress to the spirit of James Hemings. Because of you, we can.
4 popular dishes that were brought to America by the first French-trained Black Chef. Photo Courtesy of Ronald Jackson Artworks/@JamesHemingsOrg/Instagram