“This is unbelievable,” said 96-year- old Velma Williams as she crossed the threshold into Monticello’s Kenwood Cottage, Franklin D. Roosevelt ‘s World War II de facto retreat. “It’s wonderful,” added her cousin, 90-year old Ruth Johnson. Both remember what they were doing when the war started in 1941. However, for Williams, the older of the two, the recollection was vivid. “I was a student at Hampton,” she said, referring to the historically black college in Virginia that graduated, among other notables, civil rights leader Booker T. Washington. “It was announced that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Soon after, all the young men disappeared.”
That was just one of the stories Williams and Johnson recalled during their recent interview for Getting Word, the oral history project documenting memories of descendants of Monticello’s enslaved community. Just a few weeks earlier, they had learned that they are descendants of Peter Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved cook and brewer, and an older brother of Sally Hemings.
“We’d always heard we were related to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but could never find out how,” said Johnson. She tried unsuccessfully to research the subject as a University of Virginia graduate student in the 1960’s. When asked how she felt about learning the real facts about her ancestry and that even though she is not related to Jefferson, she is descended from the country’s best-documented enslaved family she replied, “oh, it’s just fine. Great to know after all these years.”
Williams, who lives in Oakland, CA, traveled to the East coast alone by train. “My family and friends at home won’t believe this,” she said as she prepared for her on-camera debut. “It’s another extraordinary experience in a wonderful life.”
Both women, whose mothers were sisters, were born in Goochland County, Virginia, where, according to the 1880 federal census, their great-grandmother Sally Robinson, her adult children, and her grandchildren had a farm that eventually grew to 150 acres. Research by Getting Word founder and Monticello’s Shannon Senior Historian Lucia Stanton and this writer has shown that Sally Robinson was Peter Hemings’ daughter and Sally Hemings’ niece. Williams said there was a tradition of having a Sally in each generation. Census records bear out that claim – there are several “Sallys” in the family tree.
Most of the land once owned by the Robinson clan has been sold and the five-bedroom house that formerly graced the property burned down in 1988. Johnson’s father and brother died in the fire. They’re buried in a family cemetery that is on the thirty acres Johnson still owns. The family’s patriarch, the women’s grandfather, Anderson Robinson, born in 1850 and once enslaved by Jefferson’s extended family, is also buried there. He died n 1926. “I remember the apple orchards my grandfather had,” said Williams. “He must’ve learned how to grow them at Monticello.”
While the women have led very different lives – Williams lived abroad as a diplomat’s wife and Johnson was a long-time educator in Richmond – they and their many cousins have remained close over the decades. “There were so many of us that I thought we’d always be here,” said Williams of a clan that at one time included her parents, siblings, aunts, uncles - and their many offspring. “One uncle was a doctor, another one a lawyer, and another a pharmacist,” she said. But like many of the middle-class, their family is shrinking. “I’m at the end of my line,” said Williams, who has two children and one adopted grandchild. Johnson has two stepchildren.
Has learning about their past changed their family’s future? Johnson thinks so. “I’m excited about what the young people might find out,” she said, adding that it’s important to know your roots.
Williams has a slightly different outlook. “I’m happy with myself and what I’ve been able to do with my life. I hope that future generations will be just as happy with what they’re able to do with theirs.” As for her future, she hopes to return to Monticello next year, perhaps on July 4th – which happens to be her 97th birthday.
Look for Velma Williams’ and Ruth Johnson’s interview on our website, monticello.org/Getting-Word in the near future.