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Tom And Sally And Frank And Me
A Jefferson descendant on luck, ancestry, and the meaning of the DNA findings
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
Frank and I had a way of keeping to ourselves in those early years when we were growing up and moving from one place to another almost every year and friendships were so temporary. We liked the woods, we loved “hunting” with slingshots, we liked fishing, and we would take every free moment of every day we had and use it up building forts and tree houses and exploring the woods we found near every place we lived, and as Army brats we lived in a lot of places. I guess maybe two or three years went by before we settled into one place long enough to encounter the kinds of attitudes from which our grandparents, and, indeed, Maddie and Robert, had done such an efficient job of protecting us. But by that time our mother and father had opened the doors that had been closed to us as little boys, and they had made absolutely clear to us that the color of our skin made us no better than any of the kids we went to school with who had skins of many, many colors. We took this to heart, because in our own way we already knew it was true.
Frank had a temper with a very low flash point, and he didn’t suffer fools or bullies gladly. As for me, I’ve never really taken to being told by people whom I don’t respect that my way of thinking is wrong. These obstinate traits got us into more fights than I can recall, and as we got older, quite a number of them were over race. Sitting here tonight, I can see before me, as if this computer monitor were a movie screen, one day on a playground when Frank and one of our friends, who was black, were swinging together on the swings. Some kid, who was older and bigger than Frank, walked up and told “the nigger” to “get off the swing.” Frank and our friend kept swinging. The big kid said it again, and Frank told him to leave them alone. The big kid turned on Frank, reaching for his legs, trying to pull him from the swing. Frank pushed away, came back on the next swing, and kicked the big kid in the chest, jumped from the swing, and started whaling on him. I was nearby, and having seen the big kid baiting Frank, and seeing my little brother in a fight with someone much larger than he was, I got involved. Blood was spilled. We went home and told Mom what had happened. She told us not to worry, that we had done the right thing. But soon there came a knock, and the father and the bloodied son were standing in the door. The father, a major (a major!—he outranked Dad!), was yelling at our mother, threatening to go to the commanding general, a litany of macho military nonsense that telegraphed to this Army brat and daughter of a West Pointer that nothing of the sort would ever come to pass. She stood her ground. The major slammed the door with some final threats, and he and the bloodied son went home. Later that evening, upon hearing of the incident, my father (a lowly captain) paid a visit to the major and, as he put it, “had some words” with him. That ended it. Never an angry word was directed at either Frank or me. We had done as we had been told. We had stood up.
There were other fights in other years for the same reason and other reasons, but I can’t recall that either Frank or I got in much trouble for fighting. We were expected to stand up for our principles and to behave in a certain manner. We were to respect others and, as the Sunday schools we went to taught us, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It wasn’t so hard to understand, but it could be difficult to practice. But then, life wasn’t supposed to be easy. Frank and I had already learned that. We learned it from Robert and Maddie, and from Aunt Aggie and Miss Moo, and from Mom and Dad, and from Grandma and Grandpa, and from our maternal grandparents, Meama and Papaw.
The DNA evidence about Jefferson and Hemings will probably end up as a footnote to a much larger story.
All these memories have reminded me of something that I think I had almost forgotten: how very, very lucky we were. The thing that reminded me was being asked by the editor of this magazine to comment on what amounts to “the meaning of it all” concerning the recent findings in a DNA study that prove rather conclusively that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemings—the half-sister of his wife, Martha. This issue has been argued for years, of course, with historians and, sadly, most of the members of the Monticello Association on one side, insisting that Jefferson and Hemings could never have had children for all sorts of reasons, chief among them that Jefferson just wasn’t that sort of man. On the other side have been the voices and the oral histories of the descendants of Sally Hemings, who have for two centuries held on to the conviction that has been passed down over the years through their families that they are indeed descendants of Thomas Jefferson.
Now we find ourselves at this critical juncture, when the Hemings descendants, challenged to “prove” their relationship to Thomas Jefferson, have actually had their blood taken for DNA analysis, and lo and behold, it comes up positive, at least for the descendants of one of Sally’s sons, Eston Hemings Jefferson. (The failings of the study, which compared only Y chromosomes taken from unbroken chains of male descendants from both sides, of course leave out of the question who fathered Sally’s daughters, who as females had no Y chromosomes to pass along. But then, I know that women are used to being left out of history, if hardly happy about it.)