The revelation about Thomas Jefferson's liaison spotlights a sensitive racial issue--passing for white
By Tamala M. Edwards
Their strength lay in the stories, passed from generation to generation. And so when descendants of Thomas Woodson rolled up their sleeves to give blood for DNA testing, they saw it as a chance to affirm their faith--that Thomas was, in fact, a child of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. "We knew it like religion," says Robert Golden, Thomas' great-great-great- grandson. The results, however, came as a shock: Jefferson was not Thomas Woodson's father.
Similar DNA tests, as the world now knows, established that the youngest of Hemings' sons, Eston, was Jefferson's child. Yet amid the intense debate about Jefferson that this discovery has caused, more interesting may be its impact on the Hemings clan itself. The descendants of the two Hemings sons whose link to Jefferson could not be established--Thomas and Madison--regard themselves as black but have long assumed that Jefferson is their ancestor. Yet the descendants of Eston, the son proved almost conclusively to be a child of Jefferson and Hemings, see themselves as white and for generations had never claimed any link to their slave ancestor (or to Thomas Jefferson, for that matter, though there was some talk of a connection to one of his uncles). The story of how the Hemings family diverged onto opposite sides of the color line says much about "passing," a social practice that shakes more than a few family trees and forces one to question the validity of neat racial categories.
After Jefferson's death in 1826, Thomas, Madison and Eston all ended up as freedmen within 25 miles of one another near the town of Chillicothe, Ohio. The brothers were quite fair, being only an eighth black, and Jeffersonian in appearance: tall with reddish hair and gray eyes. But Thomas would become a leader in the black community, founding an African Methodist church. Madison put down roots near a mulatto settlement and also stayed in the black community. "Though we consider it a gift of God, our one enduring question is why Madison chose to stay black when it might have been easier to live as white," asks his descendant, Shay Banks-Young, 54, who lives in Columbus.
Eston took a quite different path. For 14 years he lived in Chillicothe, the 1850 Census listing him as mulatto. But by 1860 he and his wife, who was also part black, were living in Wisconsin, his name changed to E.H. Jefferson, the marking on the Census now white. The family would become successful members of the white middle class, winding up on social registries. For descendants like Julia Jefferson Westerinen, 64, of New York City, there would be no idea of the family legacy. For her a brush with blackness was befriending the maid or disciplining her daughter Dorothy for using the word nigger.
The kind of passing that Eston (and two unaccounted-for Hemings children, Beverly and Harriet) did is well known among blacks, most of whom have stories of light-skinned relatives who pretended to be white in order to fare better in society. "It's a way of getting away from the stigma and the suffering," explains New York University African studies professor Tricia Rose. Some urban blacks were able to straddle the fence, black at home and white at work. "You would have neighbors," says Golden. "But when you saw them downtown at the job, you knew not to speak to them." But for many, like Eston, it has been a path of no return. To be found out would mean losing status, jobs, opportunities--if not meeting violent results--so familial ties were permanently severed.
Because it's a secretive process, the number of white families with black ancestors who passed is hard to estimate, though historians suspect the number is sizable. Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, author of Sweeter the Juice, a book about relatives who passed as white, says she has received 40,000 letters from people affected by passing. "We have to rethink what these racial boxes mean," she says. While blacks have long acknowledged dual bloodlines, more whites are now embracing such revelations. In January, Jillian Simms, 29, will publish a history of her great-grandmother, who was Vassar's first black graduate but passed most of her life as white. Oddly, Simms too had been told she was related to Thomas Jefferson, and her great-grandmother was named Anita Hemings. (It's unknown whether Anita is related to Sally.)
Passing is an issue the Hemings descendants have hardly been able to ignore. Diane Redman, a Madison Hemings descendant who lives in Columbus, recalls looking at family pictures from the 1920s, '30s and '40s, with her parents ruefully pointing out relatives who had passed. Indeed, passing is the reason Madison's link to Jefferson cannot be genetically confirmed. Establishing a DNA link requires a continuous male line; but of Madison's three sons, one died childless and the other two disappeared, passing for white.
The white and black Hemings branches are embracing, making plans to hold a joint family reunion. They've been received less warmly by the Monticello Association, the organization of descendants of Jefferson's white daughters. For years they asserted the Hemings children were sired by one of Jefferson's wayward nephews. Now that the DNA tests have eliminated that possibility, they are suggesting there were other male Jeffersons who could have fathered Hemings' children. Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis discounts this, saying circumstances bolster Madison's link to Jefferson and even call into question the nullification of the Thomas lineage. At any rate, the clan may have no choice but to meet the rest of the family: the association holds a barbecue every spring, and several of the Hemings kin say they just might drop by next year.
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