The novel played with known 19th-century reports that Thomas Jefferson had an intimate relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and fathered several children with her. Of mixed race and described as nearly white, she was believed to be the half sister of Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, the youngest of six children by her father John Wayles with his slave Betty Hemings. The large Hemings family were among more than 100 slaves inherited by Martha and Thomas Jefferson after her father's death. Martha died when Jefferson was 40 and he never remarried.
Although Jefferson never responded to the rumors, historians believe that his freeing of the four Hemings' children as they came of age is significant: he let Beverly (a male) and his sister Harriet Hemings "escape" in 1822 from Monticello, and freed two by his will in 1826, although he was heavily in debt. His daughter gave Hemings "her time", so she was able to live freely in Charlottesville with her two youngest sons, Madison and Eston Hemings, for the rest of her life. Except for three other Hemings men whom Jefferson freed in his will, the rest of his 130 slaves were sold in 1827. A 1998 DNA study confirmed a match between the Jefferson male line and Eston Hemings' direct male descendant. Based on this and the body of historic evidence, most Jeffersonian scholars have come to accept that Jefferson did father Hemings' children in a long relationship.
As an escaped slave, due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, William Wells Brown was at risk in the United States. Going to England on a lecture tour in 1849, he decided to stay there with his two daughters after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, as he was at risk of being taken by slave catchers. He published Clotel in 1853 in London; it was the first novel published by an African American. In 1854 a British couple purchased freedom for Brown, and he returned with his daughters to the US.