Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Self-Evident Truths? How Jefferson’s Black Descendants Became White

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JONATHAN TILOVE

Newhouse News Service

November 8, 1998

c. 1998 Newhouse News Service

So, America now has DNA evidence that Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite. He may have abhorred miscegenation in theory, but quite apparently not in practice. It seems he did have at least one child with his slave, Sally Hemings.

But the generations-later progeny of that union are living proof of an even more telling and consequential hypocrisy: America’s stubborn and sometimes bizarre insistence of creating ironclad categories of race, and fitting everyone into one of them. And why are they proof of that? Because, as anyone who has seen their photographs probably has observed, Thomas Jefferson’s “black” descendants are “white.”

To examine how, in a nation where through history a single drop of black blood made one legally and socially black, the descendants of a slave could become and stay white suggests how strange, arbitrary and sometimes futile America’s efforts to define people by race can be, and how the happy acceptance of a white family of their black ancestry may signal that a new day is dawning.

And by his example, Jefferson may provide America with an object lesson about how much more mulatto millions of Americans are, and always have been, than is generally presumed.

“We’re all a mixture, and isn’t that wonderful,” said Julia Jefferson Westerinen, one of 14 living heirs of Eston Hemings. Eston was a son of Sally Hemings who, according to a DNA analysis appearing in the new issue of the British journal Nature, was almost certainly fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

Westerinen is delighted that her identity mocks not only stereotypes of race, but the whole notion of race as defining identity.

“I am an American,” said Westerinen, who lives with her family on New York’s Staten Island. “I am Scoth, Irish, English, French and black and Jewish. Maybe I’m a good symbol for America, me and lot of other people.”

Westerinen always knew she was some kind of Jefferson kin. But it was only as an adult that she learned that her blood line passed through Sally Hemings. For someone with less broad attitudes about race, Westerinen said, hers might be a cautionary tale.

As she put it, “Here’s living proof, you may be casting stones but watch out, we all live in six degrees of separation.”

Her son Art offers a similar take, addressing an imagined white supremacist: “Guess who I am and guess who you could be?”

“It makes the point that race is not a biological fact of life as much as it is a social construction,” said James Oliver Horton, the Benjamin Banneker professor of American studies at George Washington University.

Horton recalled a reputed interview with Papa Doc Duvalier, in which the late Haitian dictator said his country was 90 percent white.

“How do you define white?” the reporter asked.

To which Duvalier replied, “How do you define black in your society?”

Horton said the Westerinens offer a window into “how ultimately ridiculous the system of racial categories is and the degree to which we really are a multiracial society.”

Horton recalls doing some research in the National Archives when a white woman researching a Civil War ancestor asked him to help decipher the “USCT” on his military record. Her ancestor had served in the United States Colored Troops, and was not among its white officers.

Intermarriage rates are on the rise, and the next census will allow respondents to identify with more than one racial category.

But for most of American history, the one-drop rule has prevailed in matters legal and practical. Even today, “Most people are still living by it,” said Davis, who wrote the book “Who Is Black?”

Nonetheless, many light-skinned black people over the years have crossed the color line, “passing” as white, though very many more who could have passed for white chose not to.

One who did make the move was Eston Hemings.

Eston was born to Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, in 1808. Sally Hemings herself was only one-quarter black and was very light-skinned. Her father was the white slaveowner John Wayles, who also was the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who died in 1782. In other words, Hemings and Jefferson’s wife were half-sisters. Hemings’ mother also was a mulatto.

So light was Hemings that in 1830, after Jefferson’s death and at a time when she was informally freed and living with Eston and another son, both of whom had been formally freed, the census listed all three as white.

According to Judith Price Justus, who wrote a genealogy of the various Hemings lines titled “Down From the Mountain,” Eston married a mulatto woman who was the daughter of a Jewish salesman – he sold Jefferson a horse – and a mulatto woman. Justus found that when the couple moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, they were identified in the census as “Hemings” and they were racially, “mulatto.”

But after moving to Madison, Wis., Eston and his wife took the name “Jefferson,” and the census recorded them as racially “white.”

Every succeeding generation has married white. Some members of the family knew their secret and passed it on; Julia Westerinen grew up knowing she was some kind of Jefferson kin, but not knowing exactly how.

Today Westerinen, 64, said she is absolutely delighted by the details of her ancestry. “It makes me more interesting than I thought I was,” she said.

Art, 37, shares her delight.

“It’s a surreal thing,” he said. “It’s just thrilling to us, especially because of the slave angle. It’s more interesting than being a blue-blood, direct-line descendant. It lends added meaning to have that much history in your bloodline, to have the slave and the president.”

But Harvard University sociologist Orlando Patterson, author of the forthcoming book on slavery, “Rituals of Blood,” said: “This rather reflects a quite significant change in this society. Forty years ago, 30 years ago, people would be shunning any of this kind of publicity. They would feel they were being outed.”

Just this week, South Carolina voters deleted from the state constitution language prohibiting “marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more of Negro blood.” The vote was 62 percent to 38 percent.

And in 1986 the Supreme Court refused to review the case of a Louisiana woman who thought she was white but was labeled “colored” by the state because she was more than 1/32nd black. In 1977, the woman had sued in state court to have her race changed to “white,” and lost.

Julia Westerinen is 1/64th black, but, she said, blood count aside, “I can’t be black. I haven’t suffered the terrible indignities blacks have suffered. I haven’t earned that privilege. I don’t think blacks would accept me.”

She may be right.

Jane Faithful is among the many African-American descendants of Thomas Woodson who believe, based on a strong oral history in the family, that their forefather was the first child of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. Faithful, who lives in Bridgeport, Ohio, is a recent past president of the Thomas Woodson Family Association, with more than 200 active members. There are well more than 1,000 descendants, who, she said, come in every shade.

“Any number could pass for white and yet there are some very dark ones; we don’t even seem to see the color,” Faithful said. But, she said, they identify as African-Americans, and there remains lingering resentment toward the Hemings cousins who went white.

Eston’s descendants and the Woodson kin have not met.

“We don’t expect any contact. We don’t want any contact. They choose to be white and that’s their prerogative,” Faithful said. “They crossed over to the other side. It happens in all families, it happened in my family. You just never see them again. Naturally. Even today, if you’re white you get better jobs, better housing, have better schooling. Of course, you can’t come home to your mother’s funeral.”

But, she added, that is the exception. “Most choose to stay with their own kind.”

The Nature study threw some cold water on the Woodson claim, finding no chromosomal link to Jefferson.

But Faithful is undisturbed. “We know who we are,” she said, certain that their claim eventually will be thoroughly accepted as well. “They’ve opened the door. Now just watch out.”

Justus, who traced the Woodson genealogy, agrees. And, Justus, who is white, notes that at one Woodson reunion she discovered she, too, was a distant relation through a slave-owning ancestor who fathered Thomas Woodson’s wife.

‘It’s an amazing melting pot,’ says Justus.

To Gregory Howard Williams, who wrote the autobiographical book ‘Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black,’ the Jefferson story may be unusual because it involved a president, but not so rare in the racial line-crossing it reveals.

‘Blacks are reluctant to talk about the white side of their family, and whites are reluctant to talk about the black side of their family,’ says Williams, the dean of the law school at Ohio State University. The Jefferson example may prove liberating.

‘It’s going to be interesting,’ says Williams. ‘This is just the tip of the iceberg.’

Written by jonathantilove

July 25, 2012 at 9:12 pm

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