- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren
A STUDY IN HISTORICAL SILENCES
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
On March 13, 1873, the editor of the local newspaper, the Pike County Republican , published Madison’s detailed recollections of life at Monticello as Jefferson’s slave son. In December he published a similar memoir from another Monticello slave, Israel Jefferson. The latter did not claim to be Jefferson’s son but corroborated the claim that Jefferson had indeed been Madison’s father.25 The Israel Jefferson memoir is reprinted in Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , pp. 477–82.
Two of Madison’s sons fought on the Union side in the Civil War: Thomas Eston, who died in a Confederate prison in Meridian, Mississippi, and William Beverly, who enlisted to fight in the last year of the war at age sixteen. He died in a Kansas veterans’ hospital.26 According to a letter owned by Lucile Roberts Balthazar, descendant of Madison Hemings, who permitted me to examine it in Los Angeles in 1975. A third son, James Madison, moved to Colorado, where he disappeared into the white society.27 According to tradition in the Roberts family, descendants of Madison Hemings in Los Angeles.
The gray-eyed, sandy-haired Madison had seven daughters. All remain “lost” except the youngest, Ellen Wayles, about whom we know a great deal, since her descendants form one of the most remarkable black families in southern California. Though Ellen was white enough to be mistaken for white all her life, she chose not to “go Caucasian,” as her grandchildren describe it, but instead married Andrew Jackson Roberts, an Oberlin College graduate then teaching in a black school in the lower Scioto Valley, not far from Waverly, Ohio. The family Bible has a tintype of Ellen as an adolescent. Her grandson, Andrew Giles Roberts, furnished me a picture taken in Los Angeles when she was in her eighties. It shows a remarkable resemblance to Jefferson.
“Grandma Roberts was about five-foot-ten,” Roberts reports, “with big bones and very blue eyes. When the children would ask her if she was white or black she would not answer.” Roberts’ sister, Lucile Roberts Balthazar, said: “You couldn’t tell her from a white woman. When she was an old lady and rode in the back seat with our father driving in front, many thought her to be a wealthy white woman driven by her chauffeur. The minister who preached her funeral sermon said: ‘There is something important I could tell you about Ellen Hemings Roberts, but I will not.’ ”
Ellen Roberts and her husband moved to Los Angeles at the turn of the century, and he quickly became important in the business community. One of their sons, Frederick Madison Roberts, after graduating from college in Colorado, taught for a time in Mississippi and then returned to enter California politics. The first black to be elected to the California State Assembly, he served from 1918 to 1936 and became known as the dean of the assembly. He founded a newspaper, The New Age Dispatch , became a good friend of Earl Warren’s, and helped found the University of California at Los Angeles. He gave Ralph Bunche his first job. In 1938 he ran unsuccessfully for Congress, losing to Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, who later lost to Richard Nixon. Roberts’ daughter, Gloria, is presently touring Europe and Africa as a pianist.28 These data were furnished me by Frederick Madison Roberts’ widow, Pearl Hinds Roberts. Both were described in their earlier years in Delilah L. Beasley, Negro Trail Blazers of California (Los Angeles, 1919), pp. 137, 215-16. An early picture of Roberts appears on p. 40.
Roberts’ widow, Pearl Hinds Roberts, who as a young woman studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, is now a frail and delicately featured woman of eighty-three. After her marriage in 1921, she said, she and her husband for twelve years lived with Ellen Wayles Hemings Roberts. She was an extremely quiet woman who enjoyed reading, Pearl Roberts says, but did have an occasional cutting wit. “But she never discussed her family or her past, and never talked about Jefferson. It was my husband who told me briefly about the family descent after we were married. But he made it clear, ‘We just don’t talk about it.’”
When I asked the reason for this reticence, Mrs. Roberts replied with some deliberation: “Well, there was the illegitimacy thing. And then, too, people simply did not believe us.”
Mrs. Roberts learned most of the details about Sally Hemings and Jefferson from her husband’s cousin. “Nell told us how Sally had journeyed from Virginia to Paris with Jefferson’s small daughter and had become pregnant there. She did not want to return to America. She wanted no more illegitimate children and she wanted her children to grow up free. Jefferson dearly loved her, I was told, but marriage was impossible because it was forbidden by Virginia law.”