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Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Ellen’s brother, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, in a confidential interview with an early Jefferson biographer, admitted that Sally Hemings “had children which resembled Mr. Jefferson so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in their veins.” In one case, he said, “the resemblance was so close, that at some distance in the dusk the slave, dressed in the same way, might have been mistaken for Mr. Jefferson.” Both Randolph grandchildren tried to protect Jefferson’s reputation by insisting that one of their uncles, either Peter or Samuel Carr, was probably the real father. But the Carr brothers were already married, with families and slaves of their own, during most of the years that Sally Hemings was bearing children. No one has explained how either could have fathered the eldest son, Tom, who had been conceived in Paris. Nor has the presence of these men at Monticello on the other crucial dates ever been established.16 See my discussion of this evidence in Appendix III , “The Family Denial,” Thomas Jefferson , pp. 493–501.
Eston, the youngest of the slave children, also passed into the white world, but much later in life than Harriet or Beverly. He is the only one, so far as we know, who took the name Jefferson. Thanks to his descendants, especially Julia Jefferson Westerinen and Jean Jefferson Stang, and to important United States Census listings, we are now able to trace his life, and that of his children, in surprising detail. His own record is a fascinating example of the capriciousness of black-white identification in American society. The United States Census of 1830 in Virginia listed him as a white man; the census of 1850 in Ohio listed him as a mulatto; in Wisconsin he was accepted again as white.
In classic cases of miscegenation and passing, the family connection is obliterated at the critical point when the “almost white” young man or woman decides to pass. The decision is accomplished by moving out of the family, changing the place of residence and name, and breaking off all future family communications except on terms involving elaborate secrecy. The “passer” expects and gets protective cooperation from black relatives and friends. But he or she denies the white parent as well as the black and becomes, for all practical purposes, parentless. The new identity is not false, for any black who is white enough to pass for white is by any genetic standard white indeed. But the persons who pass are technically without a genealogy. The collective oral memory about their parentage remains only within themselves and their immediate relatives and near friends. This memory may disappear in a single generation, especially if those who pass have children from whom they conceal all knowledge of the fractional black ancestry.
Many so-called blacks who pass never have children. The wholly unnecessary fear that a “black baby” may appear unexpectedly in a future generation—common to folklore but actually impossible genetically—contributes to this. The oral genealogical memory may, however, be extremely tenacious and carry down through the generations despite the pressures toward oblivion, especially if the white ancestor is a man of prominence. This has been true of the descendants of Eston Hemings.17 The name Eston is extremely rare. Mr. Wilson Randolph Gathings, collateral kin to Jefferson, who searched in vain to find the name in Virginia tax records and genealogies, has suggested to me that Jefferson chose it because it was the name of the birthplace of William Randolph, his maternal ancestor in Yorkshire, England. It was also the middle name of Jefferson’s favorite Randolph cousin, Thomas Eston Randolph. I am indebted to Professor Armstead Robinson of the University of California at Los Angeles for information on the phenomenon of passing.
Eston married what his brother Madison described as a colored woman, and when he moved to Chilicothe, Ohio, with his children in 1836, he stayed in the colored community. The 1850 census gave his age as forty-three, that of his wife, Julian (Julia Anne), as thirty-six. By then their son Wayles was fifteen, and their daughter Anne fourteen. The youngest son, named Beverly after his uncle, was then twelve. Eston was described on the census as a professional musician worth two thousand dollars. Madison Hemings was also a musician; one Monticello slave described him as “a great fiddler.”18 This was the slave named Isaac. See Jefferson at Monticello , p. 4. Who furnished the instruments for these sons? Who taught them how to play? Who gave them the encouragement essential for professional competence? We know that Jefferson was an accomplished violinist with an enormous affection for music, and that during his lifetime he had purchased harpsichords for his wife and for both his white daughters, Martha and Polly. It would seem most likely that Jefferson also encouraged both slave sons as musicians; but Madison Hemings’ memoir on this subject is silent.