Thomas Jefferson’s Unknown Grandchildren

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“Cousin Nell” was Mrs. Nellie E. Jones, a granddaughter of Madison Hemings through his daughter, Mary Hemings Johnson. In 1970, researching manuscript material in Charlottesville, Virginia, I saw a letter written by Nellie Jones on August 10, 1938, to Stuart G. Gibboney, then head of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. She stated that she had a pair of spectacles, a silver hairbuckle, and an inkwell that had once belonged to Jefferson. Her great-grandmother Sally Hemings had given them to Madison Hemings, she said, and at his death they had been inherited by her mother.29 Noted in Brodie, Thomas Jefferson , p. 476. When I asked Pearl Roberts if she had ever seen these heirlooms, she replied that when Mrs. Jones moved to California from Watseka, Illinois, she had taken them with her. “I displayed them once at a party,” she said. “The spectacles were meant to be worn low on the nose, with lenses about the size of a quarter.” Mrs. Jones is now dead, and no one in the Roberts family knows what has happened to her adopted children or the artifacts from Monticello.

Ellen Wayles Hemings Roberts had two children. Her second son, William Giles Roberts, lived until May, 1975. His obituary in the Los Angeles Sentinel on May 15 said: “Mr. Roberts reportedly was the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.” His children showed me in the family Bible not only pictures of their grandparents but also dates of birth, which coincide with those on the United States Census records of Huntington Township, Ross County, Ohio, in 1850, 1860, and 1870. Andrew Giles Roberts, who furnished me the photograph taken of his grandmother in her eighties, sitting in a rocking chair, takes a certain satisfaction that her resemblance to Jefferson’s portraits helps bear out the truth of the old family tradition. Like the black historians with whom I have talked, he resents the fact that oral history coming from blacks is frequently not believed, that the burden of proving a white ancestor is always placed on blacks and often disbelieved even if the data are impeccable.

All the members of this family with whom I talked knew instances of friends or relatives passing, and all conceded that they were automatically protected by the black community. They fiercely resent the white notion that African blood “taints” white blood, and they also resent the fact that total whiteness is so sensationally rewarded socially and economically. They deplore the tradition that blacks who succeed in passing must keep their Negro ancestry secret from their children. This means that the splitting of families is swift and irreversible. It means loss, abandonment, and guilt.

“We blacks have always known that light-skinned people get along better economically than dark-skinned people,” Pearl Roberts said, “but I’m glad my husband was dark enough to be unmistakably Negro. It solved certain problems.” She herself is so light-skinned that when years earlier she was given a job as a saleswoman in the May Company, a Los Angeles department store that then refused to give clerking jobs to blacks, she was thought by her friends to be “passing over,” and this caused her much distress.

“My husband never liked the word ‘Negro,’” she said. “He preferred ‘Americans of African descent.’” And then she added ruefully: “You can tell how old one is by what words one uses. The very old say ‘colored’; the middle-aged say ‘Negro’; and the young say ‘black.’” She gave me pictures of her politician husband and pianist daughter with obvious pride, and showed me a cherished letter Governor Earl Warren had sent to her at Roberts’ death.

The “black is beautiful” movement has clearly had an effect on the younger descendants of Ellen Wayles Hemings. Elmer Wayles Roberts, a tall (six-foot-five) sociology graduate of U.C.L.A. who now works in the Los Angeles County probation department, said: “I’d like to know the history of my grandfather’s people as well as my grandmother’s. But it’s not easy to trace the records back to Africa.” When asked about his feelings in having Jefferson as an ancestor, he said: “I don’t have any special feelings of pride. I don’t have any feelings at all.” He first heard the story in childhood, he said, not from his parents but from their preacher, Reverend Bean. When asked if he had doubted the story, he replied with a wry smile: “I didn’t think the Reverend Bean would lie.”

Elmer Roberts’ daughter, Mrs. Paula Sanford, an attractive mother of two who works in an administrative office at U.C.L.A. and is majoring in economics, relates that she learned about her Jefferson ancestry when she was about nine but that it had little impact. Her deepest pride as a child came, she said, from the knowledge that her family—maternal as well as paternal—had been among the earliest and most influential black families in Los Angeles. “Family expectations among all the Roberts people were extremely high. We all felt we were members of a special family.” And indeed most of her aunts, uncles, and cousins are college graduates, active in public service and education in the city. One of all that I spoke to admitted that she had dropped out of college, adding somewhat impishly: “I’m the black sheep of the family.”