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John Wayles Jefferson

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Col. John Wayles Jefferson by Alexander Marquis, ca. 1864
Courtesy of the Museum of Wisconsin Art

Col. John Wayles Jefferson by Alexander Marquis, ca. 1864
Courtesy of the Museum of Wisconsin Art

Dates alive: 
1835–1892
Occupation: 
Hotelkeeper; Army officer; Cotton merchant

John Wayles Jefferson, the oldest child of Eston Hemings and Julia Isaacs Jefferson, lived as an African American in southern Ohio until the age of fifteen, when his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, changed their surname from Hemings to Jefferson, and thereafter lived as white people. He operated a restaurant and the city’s oldest hotel until the Civil War, when he joined the 8th Wisconsin infantry regiment as its major. Over three years of arduous campaigns in Mississippi and Louisiana he rose to the rank of colonel, at one time commanding the whole regiment. When he encountered an acquaintance from his Ohio years, he begged him “not to tell the fact that he had colored blood in his veins, which he said was not suspected by any of his command.”

After the war, John Wayles Jefferson settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was a prominent citizen, plantation owner, and wealthy cotton broker. He never married and died in Memphis, described in an obituary as “a model man.”

Excerpts: 
Ancestry: 
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Ambiguous Identities

Learn more about how the mixed-race Hemings family navigated the color line.

 

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