There are very few physical descriptions of Sally Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson’s slave and believed to have given birth to six of Jefferson’s children.
One of the descriptions of her said she was “mighty near white … very handsome, (with) long straight hair down her back,” according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. There are no known photos of her.
But outside of her physical appearance, how to describe Hemings’ role in history has created controversy.
Twitter users condemned NBC for describing Hemings as Jefferson’s “mistress” in a tweet on Sunday promoting the recent archeological discovery of her living quarters in Jefferson’s Monticello mansion in Virginia.
“Sally Hemings was his slave. There wasn't a choice or consent. She was not his mistress. She was his victim,” one Twitter user wrote.
“"Mistress"? She was his slave. He raped her,”” another user wrote.
Monticello is in in the process of a multi-year, $35-million dollar restoration. Visitors can take tours of the slave’s living quarters on the 5,000-acre Virginia plantation.
Hemings’ room, which is adjacent to Jefferson’s bedroom, was 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long. It was converted into a men’s bathroom in 1941, according to NBC.
“For the first time at Monticello we have a physical space dedicated to Sally Hemings and her life,” Mia Magruder Dammann, a spokeswoman for Monticello, told NBCBLK. “It’s significant because it connects the entire African-American arch at Monticello.”
MSNBC is not the only news organization who has referred to Hemings as a “mistress.”
One of the Washington Post’s own reporters, Wesley Lowery, criticized the tweet.
A Teen Vogue article in February called “Why You Can't Ever Call an Enslaved Woman a ‘Mistress’” was penned in response to the Post’s headline.
“As a slave, Hemings was not afforded the privilege of self-determination, meaning she didn't do what she wanted; she did what she was told. The word to describe that type of interaction is not 'affair'; it's rape,” wrote the article’s author, Lincoln Blades.