The Crafting Freedom Project/Sally Thomas
The Life of Sally Thomas
Sally Thomas was born into slavery in 1787 on a tobacco plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia, near Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. Her life represents the experience of an illiterate black female entrepreneur, of whom there were thousands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of these women were seamstresses and laundresses. Records of the lives of these women, many of whom were poor and illiterate, are very limited. As such, that fact that historians have ferreted out Thomas’ story from extant records is unusual. Thomas became “quasi-free,” a term used to describe an enslaved person whose master allowed them to live as a free person, even though a formal deed of emancipation from the state had not been obtained.
Like many light-skinned enslaved women, Thomas was pursued sexually by rich white men. She had two sons by two white men, neither of whom acknowledged their paternity. Thomas’ sons followed her legal status, so they too were slaves. Her mission in life became to secure freedom for her sons. At the age of thirty-two, Thomas was taken to Nashville, Tennessee, by a family member who had inherited her. There, she was permitted to hire her own time as a laundress. Eventually, she had money to rent a house where she located a laundry. Thomas paid a portion of her earnings to her owner, but she was able to retain much of her income. Her specialty was cleaning the fine linens and silks of Nashville’s white elite. She became a well-known, successful, and respected businesswoman.
As Thomas built a positive reputation and financial resources, she leveraged these assets toward her mission. She arranged for her first son, John, to work for a barge captain as a personal waiter and “pole boy.” Her plan was that the captain would emancipate her son at age twenty-one, and this came about. Thomas supported her second son, Henry, in his successful effort to claim his freedom by running away. She purchased the freedom of her third son, James, but his papers were stolen. Eventually, James’ former master went to court to attain a legal manumission for him. Sally Thomas died suddenly during a cholera epidemic when she was in her early sixties. Although unmarried, illiterate, and legally a “slave,” she must have felt a great sense of satisfaction because she accomplished her mission in life– attaining freedom for her three sons.
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY ON SALLY THOMAS
Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Hemphill, Phyllis M. Sally Thomas: Servant Girl. Nashville: Winston-Derek Publishers, 1989.