It must have been the summer between my third and fourth grades when we took a family trip to Virginia. My parents’ family vacations were always heavy on two things: nature and history. So that summer, we pitched our tent in National Parks like Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we spent time in Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg (and the nearby Busch Gardens). And then we went to Monticello.
That’s where I fell in love with Thomas Jefferson. I mean, what wasn’t there to love? I already knew the man threw down the ink on the Declaration of Independence. For someone like me who wanted to be a writer at the tender age of 8, that alone elevated him to godlike status. Then I was told he played violin — just like I would learn to do at the start of the coming school year. He’d lived in Paris! He invented the swivel chair! He was practically an atheist, just like my family was!
I left the grounds of his octagonal home a fully confirmed fangirl. Sure, we had an entire lineup of founding fathers in our nation’s founding mythology, but to me, Jefferson shone the brightest among them. A true renaissance man, more interesting even than ol’ Ben Franklin that weirdo who caught lightning in a jar and came up with a plethora of corny sayings.
But what I heard about Jefferson over the years began to tarnish his standing in my eyes. First, I learned he had owned human beings. Many of them. That didn’t stop him from writing that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” My mind reeled as I tried to reconcile that fact with the man I admired.
Then I learned he had made one of the women he enslaved become his …. there’s no good word for this. I’ve read “concubine” to describe Sally Hemings, but that sounds too exotic and titillating. Enslaved for sure. His deceased wife’s half-sister more than likely. And also a child when the relationship started. And Sally became the mother of six of his children.
My feelings for Thomas Jefferson? They became complicated.
And then, they got downright ugly.
Back to the Root
Labor Day Weekend 2018: My wife’s family gathered for a meeting outside Charlottesville, Virginia. We couldn’t make it, but we were keeping in touch by email and social media. That’s when my wife asked me if I could use my online genealogy accounts to do some last-minute research on her family tree and share whatever I came up with.
I said of course, but I harbored doubts. The sad truth with Black families is that you often hit a block right around the time of the Civil War. It’s slavery. Plantations didn’t see a need to keep public records on the people they considered less than people. They certainly didn’t keep detailed notes on the relationships they destroyed when they broke apart families. It’s often difficult to find documents on Black families in the South before 1860, especially if you’re relying only on an online search alone.
But I did my best. And surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard. One generation quickly gave way to the one before it. Familiar names came into focus. A fourth great-grandfather who was born and died at Monticello — his last name was Colbert. But his wife’s maiden name had been Hemings. My heart thudded. I didn’t dare speak up yet to my wife, lest I had been wrong. I wanted to confirm everything first.
So I got the records. I found some census documents. And then I got confirmation at the website for Monticello itself. They confirmed family connections as recently as my wife’s third great-grandfather. In fact, they have audio recordings of her distant cousins talking about him, and how he used to play violin with Thomas Jefferson up at Monticello. And from that ancestor whose voice was recorded, Robert Scott Sr., it was an easy job to show the connection to Robert Scott Jr., her second-great-grandfather, and then his son, great-grandfather Otis Scott, an ancestor known to my mother-in-law. There was no more doubt.
It turns out that my wife and her family are direct descendants of Mary Hemings, Sally’s oldest sister. Mary is my wife’s fifth-great-grandmother. Her daughter, Sarah (the fourth-great-grandmother), could have called Thomas Jefferson her uncle, if the times and situations were anything approaching normal and healthy.
It was time to let my wife know so she could tell her family: they are the descendants of people enslaved at Monticello. Survivors of history of servitude and heartbreak, but inheritors of a legacy of resilience and proud determination and valor. Her ancestors bore witness to some of the seminal acts of our nation. In fact, Mary Hemings survived being a prisoner of war held by the British during the Revolutionary War, when she could have taken the English up on their offer to turn to their side in exchange for freedom. She didn’t though, and is recognized as an American Patriot by the Daughters of the Revolution. That’s my wife’s legacy. It’s her — as Southerners put it — heritage.
Together, my wife and I packaged together all the information we could gather overnight into a document and emailed it to her family. They woke up the next morning to be re-introduced to a family story that had been forgotten along the line at some point: that they are the inheritors of a legacy that helped found our nation. I only wished I could have been there to share in that moment of discovery with them.
By way of comparison, my American heritage is paltry. My father’s ancestors wafted onto American shores from the Netherlands no earlier than about 150 years ago. My mom only got here from Germany about 50 years ago. I’m a neophyte. But my wife? She’s the true American. Her family has been here to see the entirety of our nation’s history, and not only that, they helped make it.
Don’t you ever let anyone tell a Black person that they belong back in Africa. Black people have invested more in building this country than many of our families could ever dream of doing, and under conditions that would make you weep or sick to your stomach if you stopped to actually dwell on them.