Weird History
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Meet The Family That Descended From Thomas Jefferson And Sally Hemings - His Slave

Updated July 10, 2020 293.7k views12 items

Most people know the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. He was a Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and a slave-owning Southern farmer. She was his property. Their relationship allegedly began in 1787, when Hemings was just 14 years old. Over the next three decades, Jefferson had as many as six children with her.

There are many horrifying stories about the Founding Fathers, but perhaps one of the most unscrupulous among them was Jefferson. Jefferson, who did other pretty awful things, also broke his promise to the mother of his children: he swore to free her and their progeny, but it didn't happen until he passed away. 

Jefferson and Hemings's Black descendants have faced discrimination within the Jefferson family. Jefferson's white descendants showed their prejudice when they stated they didn't believe Jefferson would "rear a race of half breeds." Even when DNA evidence finally proved Jefferson was the father of Hemings's children, some white descendants continued to deny it.

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  • Sally Hemings's Son Eston Changed His Last Name To Jefferson

    Photo: MadisonIthaca / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

    Born in 1808, Eston Hemings was the youngest child of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. He lived as a slave for almost 20 years until Jefferson's will freed Eston in 1827. Around 1850, Eston adopted the last name Jefferson. He moved his family, which included three children, to Wisconsin.

    Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge complained around the same time about freed slaves taking their former master's last name: "One very notorious villain who never had been the property of Mr. Jefferson took his name and proclaimed himself his son. He was as black as a crow, and born either during Mr. Jefferson's absence abroad, or under some other circumstances which rendered the truth of his assertion simply impossible." She added that the father of Sally Hemings's children was not Jefferson, but Samuel Carr. However, a 1998 DNA test proved Ellen wrong. 

  • Descendants Hid Their Relationship To Jefferson Rather Than Admit They Had A Black Ancestor

    Photo: Rembrandt Peale / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the 1940s, descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings hid their relationship to the Founding Father. Julia Jefferson later told The New York Times her father kept the family's connection with Thomas Jefferson secret. William McGill Jefferson and his brothers "met in the '40s and decided to kill the story."

    The Jeffersons, a white-passing family living in Illinois, chose to hide their Black ancestry rather than publicize their Colonial heritage. As Julia Jefferson explained, "Those were terrible times for Black people, and I would like to think they were trying to protect us."

  • At The Monticello Association Luncheon, Some White Descendants Wanted To Kick Out The Black Descendants

    Photo: Matt Kozlowski / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.5

    In 1999, less than a year after DNA evidence proved Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings's children, some of Jefferson's white descendants attempted to kick his Black descendants out of a luncheon. It was the 86th annual Monticello Association meeting, and the white members voted on whether to let the Black descendants stay while they debated the scientific evidence. Deborah Edwards, a descendant of Madison Hemings, told The Washington Post, "In days gone by, they wore Wamsutta sheets and pillowcases. Today they wear suits. Same scene. Different days."

    One of the white descendants, Theresa Shackelford, denied the claim. "We'd like more thorough research. We're not racists. We're snobs."

  • Jefferson's Great-Grandson Became The First Black Man Elected To The California State Assembly

    Photo: Delilah Leontium Beasley / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When two of Jefferson's Black children chose different paths - Eston Hemings Jefferson decided to live as a white man, and Madison Hemings identified as Black - it shaped their descendants' history. Frederick Madison Roberts, the grandson of Madison Hemings and the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson, became the first Black man elected to the California State Assembly in 1918.

    In 1873, Madison Hemings wrote about growing up at Monticello. He named Thomas Jefferson as his father and wrote that Sally Hemings "gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston - three sons and one daughter."