February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
A Jefferson descendant on luck, ancestry, and the meaning of the DNA findings
I can remember to this day the first time my brother and I went to the graveyard at Monticello. Our parents and grandparents had taken us down to Charlottesville for a meeting of the Monticello Association, the family organization of the descendants of Mr. Jefferson’s two daughters, Maria and Martha. The association owns and maintains the graveyard at Monticello and meets yearly to go over family business and pay its respects to Mr. Jefferson. There is a longstanding tradition that the youngest members lay the wreath upon the obelisk that marks the grave of our sixth great-grandfather. Somewhere in a box high on a shelf in a closet upstairs is a photograph of my brother, Frank, and me, decked out in our Sunday best shorts and open-collar shirts, approaching the grave, carrying the wreath between us. I must have been about five, and Frank about three. The black-and-white photograph reflects an innocent, blissful time in our lives.
All my memories of that time are in black and white, among them those of the drives we made with our parents and grandparents to Monticello from Washington, D.C. Our grandfather was Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., the commander of the VI Corps and the 5th and 3d Armies during World War II. His wife was Sara Randolph Truscott, who had been raised at Edgehill. a plantation a few miles from Monticello. The drive in those days, as much of it is today, was along two-lane blacktops that ran through hilly fields of corn and second-growth forests concealing the horrors of the Civil War battlefields beyond. I can still see the old Buick as we hung out the back windows, zooming our hands like airplanes in the superheated dusty wind of a Virginia summer. In such conditions, back when air conditioning wasn’t even a rumor, you had to make a few stops for iced teas and Cokes, for a cold, wet hand towel for Grandma to dab on her forehead. There was a place we used to pull up to on our way to Charlottesville. It was one of those wood-frame diners with a few gas pumps out front. Inside were a lunch counter and a few booths and greasy fans desultorily stirring the fetid air. I remember one time Frank and I wanted to use the bathroom. Someone pointed out the door, around the corner of the building. We scampered outside onto the gravel parking lot and found a little outbuilding with one door marked “white” and another marked “colored.” We were very young. We came from a life in the Army that even in those days—this was 1952 or 1953—was completely integrated. Yet, instinctively, we knew we were “white” and so we used the “white” bathroom, but when we got back in the car, headed south, we asked our grandparents why there were two separate bathrooms, one “white” and one “colored.” There was a moment of silence before either of them spoke, and I think it was my grandmother who answered. “That’s just the way things are,” she said softly.
Down in Charlottesville my great-aunts Aggie and Mary Walker (everyone called the latter Miss Moo) lived on one of the last pieces of land owned by their branch of the Randolph family in Virginia. It was called Wild Acres. At one time, during Prohibition, the main house had been a speakeasy, and it was rumored that there had been gambling and maybe even a little prostitution in the basement. But now it was a graciously furnished country home, with a chicken house and a pen for a few pigs and lots of space for little boys to play in the creek and romp through the woods. There was a black couple who worked there, Robert and Maddie. Robert was the gardener, and Maddie cooked and kept up the house. Robert would drive Maddie home at night in a car I think they borrowed from one of my aunts for that purpose. Frank and I used to help Robert fill two garbage cans with water every day, just before he would take Maddie home. He carried them in the trunk, the lid tied with a piece of wire. We probably did it dozens of times before one day it occurred to me that I had never seen anyone else with garbage cans full of water in the trunk of his car, so I asked one of my great-aunts why Robert always took those cans of water away when he drove Maddie home. She patiently explained that their house was in a part of town that didn’t have running water. I asked her why they didn’t have running water. “Because they’re poor,” she said. I can still remember talking with my brother about how Robert and Maddie were so poor that their house didn’t have running water. We asked Robert why they didn’t have running water one day in the woods, when he was clearing undergrowth and Frank and I were helping him carry the cut branches to a clearing where they could be burned. “You boys don’t need to be asking questions like that,” Robert told us. We were pretty good boys and we didn’t ask any more questions after that. But we kept listening, and we kept watching, in the spirit of a time when little boys like us were to be seen but not heard.
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.
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.)
And so we are left with this question: What do DNA findings such as these actually tell us? Do they simply tell us how lucky or unlucky we are?
I mean, what exactly separates me and Frank and our sisters or our mother and father or our grandparents from Julian, the descendant of Monticello who wrote the accompanying piece, or from Julia Jefferson Westerinen, one of those descendants of Sally’s son Eston, or from the late Robert Cooley, the descendant of Thomas Woodson, another of Sally’s sons, or, for that matter, from the descendants of any of the eighty-three slaves who were owned by Mr. Jefferson at Monticello on the day when he wrote these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”?
DNA? If you have this genetic marker, you’re lucky, but if you have that one, you’re not? Is that what separates us?
No. Prejudice separates us, and it always has. That’s why the recent DNA evidence about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, while fascinating and historically significant, will probably end up one day as a footnote to a story that is much, much larger than whether or not they had children, and which of their children’s descendants is or isn’t a “real” Jefferson.
This story isn’t about DNA, and it’s not about luck. It’s about slavery, and it’s about the rank prejudice that has contaminated our land with a racial fallout that has had a very long and dispiriting half-life. The fact that the major player in the story is also a major player in the founding of this country has made the story all the more fascinating but at the same time very, very difficult for the historians and the defenders of Jefferson’s legacy within my extended family, which is to say within the Monticello Association. For reasons that I think are clear to all of us now, they have sought to cling to a rather peculiar version of Mr. Jefferson. While hobbled by Mr. Jefferson’s conflicted ideas about slavery, their version of him has held on to the fiction that he was unlike the other men who owned plantations and slaves, unlike even Mr. Jefferson’s own wife’s father, who had fathered Sally Hemings, Martha’s half-sister. Now to the horror of the historians and Jefferson worshipers, DNA has reached around and bitten them in the ass. That we’ve finally had to discover the truth about this man in a test tube is the most dispiriting thing of all, for deep inside I think most of us have known the truth all along while remaining either unable or unwilling to admit it.
And so what are we to take away from all of this? I’m afraid that what I have to say may sound simplistic and perhaps redundant, but it bears repeating. Frank and I were taught (and so were our sisters, and so have we taught our children) that we were not better than the kids around us simply because we were lucky enough to have white skin. That’s what Mr. Jefferson was writing about in the Declaration of Independence: that if we’re all equal, then luck has nothing to do with if. While he failed to carry out this marvelous ideal in his own life, we have learned much from Mr. Jefferson, and we have much to thank him for, but in the end his most profound teaching may have been that, by his actions, we have learned he was just a man.