Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for her Family’s Lasting Legacy by Gayle Jessup White, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2021, 266 pages, $27.99
The grounds of Monticello, the stately Potomac River plantation house of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, is the site of two cemeteries—one for Jefferson and his white descendants with surnames Randolph and Taylor and one for the African-American enslaved people who served him and labored in agriculture. Gayle Jessup White, a former television reporter and mixed-race Jefferson descendant narrates this memoir of how she learned of her familial relationship to the Jefferson family via oral history and DNA and what this means to her today as a public relations officer for the historic site.
White grew up in an African-American neighborhood outside Washington, DC as the petted and spoiled youngest daughter of a civil servant. She attended parochial schools and enjoyed special attention from her parents as their “menopause baby” and the only child remaining at home for a number of years. She first learned of any connection with her famous ancestor from an older sister who told her of an elderly, illiterate relative named “Aunt Peachie” who lived with White’s family for many years and maintained that certain Robinson family members were Thomas Jefferson descendants via White’s father, whose own parents died before he was 5 years old.
Many years later, White enlists the help of a professional researcher named Lucia Stanton to help her investigate her paternal Robinson grandmother who was born in Charlottesville, VA around 1883 and appeared in the federal census as a servant in the household of Jefferson’s great-granddaughter. She also finds many ancestors who were considered the property of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the 3rd president’s grandson and namesake and others who attended the Charlottesville Baptist Church prior to the Civil War.
Eventually White is able to document via multiple sources that she descends from Sally Hemings, a teenage slave to Thomas Jefferson who bore him 4 children and was most likely related by blood to Jefferson’s own wife (as Hemings was probably the unacknowledged child of Jefferson’s father-in-law). Hemings traveled to Paris with the Jefferson family in 1787 and is believed to have negotiated better treatment for her unborn first child and future descendants by showing reluctance to return with Jefferson to the US where she would continue to be enslaved.
This is an interesting narrative about making sense of one’s ancestry despite historical constructs that have denied the existence of founding fathers with “feet of clay” and legacy historic sites that have discounted the slave experience in their presentation of American history to the public.
Lisa Kobrin is Reference Services and Local History Librarian at May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.