Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy

Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2022-05-15 18:49Z by Steven

Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy

Amistad (an imprint of HarperCollins)
288 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780063028654
E-book ISBN: 9780063028678
Paperback ISBN: 9780063028661
Digital Audio, MP3 ISBN: 9780063028685

Gayle Jessup White

A Black descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ family explores America’s racial reckoning through the prism of her ancestors—both the enslaver and the enslaved.

Gayle Jessup White had long heard the stories passed down from her father’s family, that they were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson—lore she firmly believed, though others did not. For four decades the acclaimed journalist and genealogy enthusiast researched her connection to Thomas Jefferson, to confirm its truth once and for all.

After she was named a Jefferson Studies Fellow, Jessup White discovered her family lore was correct. Poring through photos and documents and pursuing DNA evidence, she learned that not only was she a descendant of Jefferson on his father’s side; she was also the great-great-great-granddaughter of Peter Hemings, Sally Hemings’s brother.

In Reclamation she chronicles her remarkable journey to definitively understand her heritage and reclaim it, and offers a compelling portrait of what it means to be a black woman in America, to pursue the American dream, to reconcile the legacy of racism, and to ensure the nation lives up to the ideals advocated by her legendary ancestor.

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Ties to Thomas Jefferson Unravel Family Mystery

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2014-02-11 04:01Z by Steven

Ties to Thomas Jefferson Unravel Family Mystery

The Root

Gayle Jessup White

A woman seeks answers to decades-old questions about whether her family is related to the descendants of Thomas Jefferson.

ore than 40 years ago, I learned of my family’s ancestral ties to Thomas Jefferson. It was a blood connection impossible to prove, and one seldom discussed, as my father was ashamed of his mother’s out-of-wedlock birth. Still, he acknowledged that he’d heard from an older generation that Jefferson was his lineal ancestor. The tie was a mystery because the only black descendants we knew of were from Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, and we couldn’t find the link.

Dad also painfully confessed that his mother’s life was a mystery—she and his five older sisters died of tuberculosis in 1920 when he was 5 years old, leaving him and his older brother to be raised by a taciturn father and a cold stepmother. He remembered little about his mother, and seemed to know even less. He did offer these tidbits: She was born in Charlottesville, Va., home of Jefferson’s Monticello, and she sometimes called herself Eva Robinson, other times Eva Taylor. No one knew why.

Like most African Americans, oral history is my primary source for deep family roots. There are no birth certificates, marriage licenses or census records. Our great-great grandmothers, great-great grandfathers, aunts, uncles and cousins were items on manifests, bills of sale and plantation ledgers. Sometimes, our forefathers or their families owned our foremothers. This was apparently the case in my family. But I wasn’t to learn that for decades.

No, 40 years ago, I was accepting of what scant evidence I had, and for me, there was little doubt of my father’s Jefferson family bona fides. Dad was tall—6 feet 2 inches—freckle-faced and, in his youth, redheaded. He even had, I would learn years later, the Jefferson family nose, one that sloped gently. It was evident that there were whites in the woodpile, as folks used to say.

So when after years of collecting what little tangible proof was available, including a Bible engraved with the initials D.T. and the date 1821, which belonged to my grandmother and which I inherited from my uncle, and a baptismal certificate signed Eva Taylor Jessup, I was thrilled to find more circumstantial evidence. With the help of Thomas Jefferson scholar Lucia (Cinder) Stanton, I saw a 1900 census record listing my grandmother. She was a domestic servant living in the home of Jefferson’s great-granddaughter. I almost wept when I read Cinder’s words: “Could this Eva Robinson be your grandmother?” Cinder, who had built a highly regarded career studying Jefferson and his Monticello slaves and is the author of “Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,” seemed very confident.

It wasn’t long before she found my great-grandmother, one Rachael Robinson, in the 1870 census records, unmarried and with two children described as “mulattos.” Living as a bachelor and just one household away was Moncure Robinson Taylor, my probable great-grandfather and Jefferson’s great-great grandson, and the man who most likely fathered her children. Additionally, in 1901, my grandmother, Eva Robinson Taylor, left Charlottesville for Washington, D.C., where she was married. Around the same time, Moncure Robinson Taylor, then 40 years old, married for the first time. An interesting coincidence, or had Rachael, my great-grandmother, died, leaving Eva free to move to the city and Moncure free to marry? There’s no written evidence of that, no death certificate, but it’s possible. Cinder said the discoveries made her tingle. To say I felt the same would be an understatement.

So I‘ve learned my family is probably descended from the Taylor line, explaining why my grandmother sometimes used that surname. I started attending lectures about Jefferson, taking my friends to Monticello, Googling Thomas Jefferson and African-American descendants. It was the Googling that delivered. I read about Tess Taylor, a poet and a white Jefferson descendant. She’d written a book of poems, The Forage House, about her conflicting feelings of being descended from the country’s most enigmatic slave-holder. I sensed a connection, I reached out and she reached back. I would learn later that Tess’ great-great-grandfather was Moncure’s brother, and my great uncle. That would make Tess my third cousin, once removed…

Read the entire article here.

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Cousins, Across the Color Line

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2014-01-23 22:53Z by Steven

Cousins, Across the Color Line

The New York Times

Tess Taylor

EL CERRITO, Calif. — I learned about her through the comments section of an article in Publisher’s Weekly. I had recently published a book of poems crafted out of family stories, and it had been written up, along with a brief interview. In the interview, I reckon with the complicated history of my family — I am a white descendant of Thomas Jefferson — and the fact that some of my ancestors were slave owners from 1670 until the Civil War.

In the comments section, the woman, Gayle Jessup White, had written: “I am an African-American Jefferson descendant. My grandmother was a Taylor (although her mother didn’t exactly marry into the family!), a direct descendant from J.C. Randolph Taylor and Martha Jefferson Randolph” — Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. “Tess Taylor — I wonder if we share great-great-grandparents? The plot thickens.”

The story of Sally Hemings, a slave in the Jefferson household — and the children she most likely bore the third president — is by now widely accepted. That story has offered a chance for people descended from slave owners and those descended from enslaved people to begin to recognize their connections. But the situation, at least in my family, remains delicate. Some white Jefferson descendants have welcomed Hemings descendants. Others have not. Hemings descendants are not allowed to be buried in the family graveyard at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, because despite increased evidence, there is, technically, room for scientific doubt. The doubt in turn points to great historical violence: Because it was not the custom of slave owners to name who fathered the mulatto children on their plantations, we have little documentary evidence that would constitute legal “proof” of our interrelationship.

Yet the fact is that many so-called white and so-called black people in our country are actually deeply interrelated. It is highly likely that I have distant cousins I’ll never know, people who’ll never come to any family reunion. Historians have obsessed over Jefferson’s possible liaisons, but slavery lasted many generations. Among his sons, grandsons, great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons, there were bound to be other liaisons and therefore other direct lineal descendants of Jefferson and enslaved people or domestic servants.

I wrote to Gayle immediately. Frankly, I was delighted to get her note. I looked her up. I sent her an email. “Hey. It’s Tess,” I wrote. “Let’s talk.”…

Read the entire opinion piece here.

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