His Culinary Genius Helped Free Him From Enslavement

black and white photo of monticello
Briona Lamback
January 11, 2022

The only life James Hemings knew was to be enslaved on the Monticello plantation in Virginia. But he and his siblings, including Sally Hemings, walked the line between freedom and enslavement many times.

When his enslaver, Thomas Jefferson, sailed to France in 1784, 19-year-old Hemings joined him with one mission in mind: to become a top chef. Little did Hemings know, his entire life would pivot on his cooking skills.

Hemings spent five years living between two worlds. Technically, he was still enslaved. But in Paris, then the world’s culinary capital, he had mastered French cooking techniques, managed a kitchen as head chef, earned wages, and freely explored Paris. But Hemings had a greater purpose for it all.

When he returned to Virginia a few years later, Hemings also returned to enslavement. But he wasn’t complacent – and negotiated with Jefferson for his freedom. In exchange for training his younger brother, Peter, to replace him in the kitchen, Hemings freed himself!

His resistance to the system that tried to keep him in bondage teaches us an important lesson.

Sadly, Hemings died before he was able to earn the freedom of his brother or family members.

Despite how white supremacy tries to stop us, we must cultivate our talents and innovatively use our skills as tools for liberation as best we can, even against difficult odds.

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