Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant's Search for Her Family's Lasting Legacy
“Gayle Jessup White writes a candid and personal memoir that includes finding the legacy of President Thomas Jefferson and the author’s racial self-identity in the process.”
Gayle Jessup White writes a candid and personal memoir that includes finding the legacy of ancestor President Thomas Jefferson and the author’s racial self-identity in the process. Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy, however, is not a history of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship to Sally Hemings although other books are available on that history.
With an upbringing as a middle class Washingtonian African American, White had a journey of discovery. “What mattered most in our household, Catholicism, character, and tradition” not race and racial discrimination. “No one explained to me that I was Black” or why that mattered in the 1960s. White did not really know of the 1963 March on Washington or the race riots across the country in the summer of 1967.
Reclamation is no pity party. “Born into a family of adult and all older teens,” White was “feeling like luckiest little girl, in the best family, in the best city, and the best country in the world.” The author’s coming of age resembles that of millions of other average Americans in her time, regardless of race, with good and bad times of such a family.
The Jessups and the Greens succeeded but the author’s parents “were not part of the city’s Black elite.” Although they did attend college and traveled the world for fun and work. The author’s father bragged “with apparent pride that no one in his [Jessup] family ever served tables or waited on other people.” White would discover an ancestor Sally Robinson with descendants of “doctors, lawyers, educators, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.”
Family tensions brought the author’s father close and revealed previously unheard stories of his “nightmarish childhood.” Tragedies of his upbringing opened a gateway to so much more. White would remark in an interview for The Root that “I’ve often thought that it was the senselessness and pain of that loss that compelled me to learn more.” “Dad was as straightforward and honest as any man I have ever known” but so tight-lipped “that sometimes you had to read between the lines.” He could not remember his mother’s name.
Virginia Robinson, “Aunt Peachie,” a family legend “with a penchant for telling tales,” had told the author’s much older sister that they descended from Thomas Jefferson. White began her journey to Jefferson and his Monticello home with the Washington race riots of 1968 near her school and the author’s growing fondness for American history. Inspired by the television adaptation of Roots, White remembered that family story in college as she studied history and finally set out to learn the facts.
The author’s subsequent research brought out family secrets, a lost inheritance, and a relative who denied her Black race. Finding this lost history, however, only came in fits and starts over several years, with a 20-year gap when the author entered journalism, finished college at Northwestern University, worked in television in Georgia, married, and moved back to Washington.
White made the classic mistake of starting with suppositions and a thesis before gathering facts but rightly started the research with oldest family members and what they had of the family’s physical history and stories. “Like most African Americans, oral history is . . . the primary source for deep family roots.”
The author visited Monticello and was directed to Lucia Stanton, Senior Historian with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and a researcher on the enslaved persons of Jefferson’s plantation. This expert steered White through the complexities of censuses, death certificates, given names, and much more to piece together the possibilities. White reached out to possible cousins and found a white descendent from the same line.
DNA tests of the author became an episode of a television program with Dr. Henry Lewis Gates Jr. and the subject of newspaper stories. Ironically, Gayle Jessup White surely does descend from Thomas Jefferson through Jefferson’s great great grandson Moncure Robinson Taylor and his relationship with Rachel Robinson but not from Sally Hemings!
White, however, would be a biological cousin to Hemings through Thomas Jefferson’s wife. Also, the author is possibly related through Sally Hemming’s brother Peter.
The author received a fellowship from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to do further research. Ironically, white uncovered a letter where her ancestor Martha Jefferson Randolph had her biological first cousin enslaved Sally Robinson beaten. They are both White’s ancestors.
White writes a highly readable memoir of a life that many readers can relate to. Reclamation also tells of her search for the facts behind a family story. The book is interesting and inspiring as both. Today, the author works as the public relations and community engagement officer at Monticello—the home of White’s ancestors!