Thomas Jefferson Foundation
January 2000

In 1993, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation inaugurated a research project called Getting Word, to locate the descendants of Monticello's African-American community and to record and preserve their stories and histories. Since then, project staff have interviewed over a hundred people, including twenty-two descendants of Sally Hemings's son Madison and four descendants of his brother Eston. It was learned that Madison Hemings's descendants have passed their history through as many as eight generations. In a climate of disbelief and hostility, they continued to tell their children and grandchildren of their descent from Thomas Jefferson, often at significant times in their lives-at a coming of age, or an important moment of transition, or an intersection with history.

One descendant passed on the story of her heritage when her granddaughter won a DAR history prize. The importance of the family history is reflected in the fact that, in almost every case, the account of their ancestry was the only story that came down the generations from the times of slavery.

For Eston Hemings Jefferson's descendants, the story of connection to Thomas Jefferson also remained alive, altered to protect their passing into the white world. They heard that they were descended from Jefferson's uncle, and Eston Hemings's name and the places the family had resided were changed, in order to sever their connection with Sally Hemings and African Americans.

For a more extended account of the oral history in the Hemings family, see Lucia Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright, "Bonds of Memory: Identity and the Hemings Family," in Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, ed. Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville, 1999).


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