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Hemings Jefferson, Eston
Because of a momentous decision made in 1850, the lives of Eston Hemings Jefferson’s descendants differed radically from those of his brother Madison, exemplifying the striking gap in opportunities for blacks and whites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For thirty years the course of the brothers’ lives proceeded in unison. Both became free in 1827, according to the terms of Jefferson’s will. They left Monticello with their mother, Sally Hemings, to live in the town of Charlottesville, where they purchased a lot and built a brick house. The brothers were both skilled woodworkers and both married free women of color. In the late 1830s, after their mother’s death, Madison and Eston Hemings and their families left Virginia for the same part of southern Ohio. Thereafter, their paths diverged.
While Madison Hemings chose to live in a rural community, Eston and Julia Isaacs Hemings settled in the town of Chillicothe. Eston Hemings led a dance band that was popular throughout southern Ohio. As one contemporary noted, “his personal appearance and gentlemanly manners attracted everybody's attention to him.” But Ohio’s Black Laws denied him the vote and the right to hold office, and his children were excluded from public schools. At the moment when their children, John Wayles, Anna, and Beverly were entering their teenage years, Eston and Julia Hemings severed their ties with their African American past and left Ohio for a place where no one knew of their connection to slavery.
When they settled in Madison, Wisconsin, they changed their surname (to Jefferson) and their race, passing permanently into the white world. The Jefferson sons were popular figures in the state capital, first in the hotel trade and later in business and battle. In the Civil War, John Wayles Jefferson was chosen major in the 8th Wisconsin infantry regiment and rose to the rank of colonel after more than three years of long marches and bruising combat in the Mississippi Valley campaign. His brother, Beverly, owned the principal carriage and omnibus firm in Madison.
Beverly Jefferson’s sons benefited from the educational and professional advantages of the transition to whiteness. Several attended the University of Wisconsin; one became an attorney, another a doctor. Yet there was the constant strain of hiding their African American ancestry. The story of descent from Thomas Jefferson, which had been quietly preserved in their family, had to be changed, since he had no legitimate sons. Eston Jefferson’s descendants in the twentieth century decided to alter their family history. Descendants today did not learn of their African American heritage until the 1970s. Julia Jefferson Westerinen considered her ancestor’s motivations for passing: “I imagine he looked at his children, saw that they were intelligent, they were being educated, they should have the opportunities that the white people did.”