Discovering America's Black DNA

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March 10, 2018

DNA tests are uncovering family histories. In some cases they're also revealing mixed bloodlines and the buried history of slavery. For Black Americans, this can be emotionally-charged. What do you do when you find out one of your direct ancestors was a slave owner? And does it open the door to new conversations about racial justice and social healing?

Half brothers Robert Lafayette Gee (right) and Henderson Gee (left)

Rev. Alex Gee is fascinated by genealogy. So he took a DNA test and discovered one of his ancestors was a white slave owner. Then he went down to New Orleans to meet his white relatives โ€” and that meeting sparked a slew of complicated emotions.

a son of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, is buried in a local cemetery.

Steve Paulson was surprised to discover that a son of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, is buried in a local cemetery. With the help of Erin Hoag of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, he searches for the grave of Eston Hemings Jefferson.


For years it was rumored that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Then legal historian Annette Gordon-Reed proved it. She tells the complicated story of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship.

Students testing their DNA

What's it like to discover that your own genetic ancestry is both black and white? At West Chester University in Pennsylvania, Anita Foeman leads the DNA Discussion Project, where students use DNA testing to learn about their mixed bloodlines.

Show Details ๐Ÿ“ป
March 10, 2018
October 20, 2018
June 08, 2019
May 16, 2020
March 13, 2021
January 13, 2024
Full Transcript ๐Ÿ“„

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. Meet Reverend Alex Gee. Like a lot of us, he's interested in his family history.

Alex Gee (00:15):

I've always been interested in genealogy. It's always intrigued me to know where my family name came from. My entire life I've been asked, "Where does Gee come from?"

Anne Strainchamps (00:30):

So he started digging around.

Alex Gee (00:34):

My great-great-grandfather was born a slave. His name was Henderson. And so about a year ago, I googled his name and through, I found out that his father's name was Reuben Joshua Gee.

Anne Strainchamps (00:46):

But here's the kicker: the relatives Alex Gee found are white. And he discovered that he's part white as well.

Alex Gee (00:57):

I found a post from a gentleman named John who basically said, "I just found out that my great-great-grandfather had a Black son. Does anyone know anything about Henderson Gee?" And I thought, wait a minute, this is my grandfather's grandfather. I wrote this guy at about midnight, and when I woke up the next morning I had something in my inbox explaining who he was and who we were to each other and that's how the discussion began.

Anne Strainchamps (01:27):

That discussion turned into a trip for Reverend Alex Gee. He and a couple of family members headed from Wisconsin down to New Orleans to meet his white cousin, John Harkin.

John Harkin (01:37):

Roast beef gravy on those are like the specialty.

Alex Gee (01:41):

Oh, that's great.

John Harkin (01:47):

Did you know that the Gees ,before they ended up in England and Wales, came from France? The name was Gui, G-U-I.

Alex Gee (01:56):

So the roots were in France.

John Harkin (01:57):

That's probably before 1500. We know they were in England and Wales in 1500. There's the Gee Cross that's a landmark over there.

Alex Gee (02:09):


John Harkin (02:09):


Anne Strainchamps (02:12):

If you were looking at the Gee's American family tree, it would go like this. At the top, the patriarch, Reuben Gee, plantation owner, slave owner. His first son, R.L. Gee, was born to his white wife. But his second son, Henderson Gee, was born to another woman, a woman he owned, and that son was born Black and enslaved. Now this story is not so unusual, especially in the age of genetic ancestry testing. Root seeking is more popular than ever. In this hour, what are the consequences of discovering the history of slavery written in your own bloodline? Does it open the door to new questions about racial justice and social healing? Well, those are all questions Alex Gee had in mind when he headed South to meet his white relatives. Charles Monroe-Kane wanted to know what that was like.

Charles Monroe-Kane (03:16):

You went down with your sister and your daughter, right?

Alex Gee (03:17):

That's right and then one of my interns.

Charles Monroe-Kane (03:19):

Yeah. So when you got there, I mean for you, all of you, what was it like when you saw your first white relative?

Alex Gee (03:25):

You know Charles, it was surreal. I'm a public speaker. I'm always thrust into situations where I need to think on my feet, but I was nervous. We flew to New Orleans and got in about 10 o'clock, Friday night. We Ubered over to his place that morning. I was afraid of what I would feel. Would it be awkward? Would he be distant? Would I be angry? When I walked up to the porch, he opened the door and he hugged me and he said, "Well, cousin Alex." And it's like this older white guy in his early 70's and hugged me and invited my whole family into his home.

John Harkin (03:55):

So, after we eat, we'll go upstairs. We've got more coffee, we've got Coke Zero and Dr. Pepper. So, we'll take a drink break then go back and have another little session.

Alex Gee (04:15):


Charles Monroe-Kane (04:17):

You luckily have audio and I spent a good six, seven hours listening to all of it.

Alex Gee (04:23):

My father used to tell me his father, who was Oscar, had a white uncle. We just thought he meant very fair-skinned. And he said that blue eyes-

John Harkin (04:32):

That would be our great, great grandfather.

Alex Gee (04:35):

He talked about a guy named Thomas.

John Harkin (04:37):

Thomas Gee. He would be our grandmother's brother. I told Joan, "I really think there was a silent conspiracy not to mention Henderson and what went on back when."

Alex Gee (04:53):

I bet.

John Harkin (04:53):

I'll bet our grandmother knew.

Charles Monroe-Kane (04:55):

I bet a lot of people knew.

Alex Gee (04:57):

Oh, they knew.

Charles Monroe-Kane (04:57):

They knew.

Alex Gee (04:57):

They knew.

John Harkin (04:58):

The Gees were South plantation aristocracies, they had a lot of land and they were living the "Gone With The Wind" type of life. They had the big home and they had the silver that they hit in the well during the Civil War. And they held slaves. And there was a Henderson born within this family and right at the same time that Reuben was having his white children, Henderson was born too.

John Harkin (05:39):

[looking at photo album] That is Beulah and this is Robert Lafayette who would have been Henderson's half-brother. There's a real relationship in terms of looks, I'm sure you see it.

Alex Gee (05:50):

Just the shape of his head, and ears, hairline. That reminds me a lot of Henderson's photo.

John Harkin (05:54):


Charles Monroe-Kane (05:56):

Henderson was a slave.

Alex Gee (05:57):


Charles Monroe-Kane (05:58):

His mother, Venus, was a slave. His father, Henderson's father, was her owner and his owner. I look at those photos and I think, how do you feel about your white bloodline?

Alex Gee (06:10):

That's the piece that made the trip surreal because my Gee name -- and I'm proud of my name, and I work hard in the community, it's reputable name -- but my name comes from the gentleman who owned and raped my great-great-great-grandmother. And so I have to keep wrestling with that. The name I try to defend, the name that I try to redeem, comes from this Welsh slave owner and that blood is in me. That's something I'm still reconciling. I'm still wrestling with and-

Charles Monroe-Kane (06:38):

I can bet.

Alex Gee (06:40):

I think that that's what kept my heart racing that entire day we sat and we met. I didn't know how to reconcile the two.

Charles Monroe-Kane (06:45):

You grew up with the pressures and the prejudices of being a Black man in America, but now you're also white, does that change your identity for you to know this?

Alex Gee (06:55):

No. No, because this is American history. I don't know any African-Americans who don't have white blood in them. I think what makes this so unique is knowing the people who are descendants. We have the same blood in us, but we have different stories.

Alex Gee (07:07):

John, how old are the homes in this community?

John Harkin (07:24):

Most of these, like this one is 1861. It's a great house.

Alex Gee (07:28):

Because these aren't 13-foot ceilings, that's at least what? Like 15 feet?

John Harkin (07:32):


Alex Gee (07:32):

Is it?

John Harkin (07:32):


Alex Gee (07:34):

It looks higher than 13.

John Harkin (07:38):

But I'm going to take you up to my library, which is my favorite room, because that's where the real family antiques are.

Charles Monroe-Kane (07:51):

It's apparent and clear, how much easier the white side of the Gee family had it after reconstruction? Do you feel the Black Gees are owed something?

Alex Gee (08:01):

I think about that when I see road signs named Gee and I see that it was a well-known name, I mean, Gee Grocery Store is sort of like the QuikTrip in that community. That's where people in that part of Lee County go for their groceries and gas, and then there's a laundry store next door. Then I consider the fact that my father was a sharecropper. He picked cotton for living. So I'm the only Black male Gee to not pick cotton for living because my father did, his father, Ernest, did, his father, Oscar, did, and his father, Henderson, was a slave.

Alex Gee (08:30):

When I had that meeting, I didn't just think, wow, they're white. I'm thinking, they're probably oblivious to US history, to have built this wealth and these businesses and this ownership on the backs of Black people, and to really think that the American dream has worked for them. They've worked really, really hard and they were probably more fortunate than us because racism kept us down. No, that slavery system and my family members kept us down.

Charles Monroe-Kane (08:54):


Jackie Lee (08:56):

So let me go back to asking you, what is this like for you? I mean, to actually be meeting family?

John Harkin (09:04):

Well, I'm atypical, I think for the South and the whole family. I mean, I grew up with parents who were just incredibly bigoted racists and I was the same because as a child you just parrot what you hear your parents say. I had my great moment of discovery about the time I was a senior in high school and I've been a yellow dog Democrat ever since. So it's very fulfilling for me to meet you people and find that we're just all folks and we've got a lot in common, much more so than I do with all my white relatives. There weren't a lot of Hillary voters out there in the family, they're all Trump people. So it's great to me to open up this whole new vista.

Charles Monroe-Kane (10:18):

I was waiting for something to happen that never happened, which was the white people bring up slavery or at least talk about how Henderson was conceived. They never brought up slavery.

Alex Gee (10:30):

Well, when do white people ever bring up slavery, other than to be sorry that it happened to someone else? I think to bring up slavery in the context of their family, to somehow connect their ability to have a formal education or the life that they do -- I still don't know if they've made the connection between who they are and how they became who they are. The wealth that was afforded them, the opportunities, I think is too painful. And too embarrassing. And it feels so, so distant, but I wouldn't have my last name were it not for slavery. And so I never expected them to bring it up and in the first meeting, I wasn't sure how ready I was.

Charles Monroe-Kane (11:11):

So two days ago, just two days ago, I called John Harkin up on the phone. , We only talked for like 10 minutes, but I'll play a little snippet of the conversation to add to this.

Alex Gee (11:20):


John Harkin (11:27):

Good morning. Harkin's Florist, this is John.

Charles Monroe-Kane (11:29):

John, this is Charles from To The Best Of Our Knowledge, how are you, sir?

John Harkin (11:33):


Charles Monroe-Kane (11:34):

Are you ready to chit-chat about family history?

John Harkins (11:37):

I am indeed.

Charles Monroe-Kane (11:39):

When you met your Gee relatives that were descendants of Henderson Gee, how did it feel to meet them?

John Harkins (11:44):

It was just a wonderful coming together. Beautiful people. And I had only heard a few months earlier of Henderson.

Charles Monroe-Kane (11:57):

You and Alex Gee seem to have connected and you have such a powerful history together, have you ever thought about what it'd be like if you had switched places? I mean, what if you were the descendant of Henderson and he was the descendant of Robert, have you ever considered that?

John Harkin (12:13):

I would be a very angry person.

Charles Monroe-Kane (12:15):

Why do you think you'd be angry?

John Harkin (12:18):

The injustice of it all.

Charles Monroe-Kane (12:21):

I'm looking at the pictures, amazing photographs of Robert, your Gee descendant and of Henderson, Alex's Gee descendant, and I look at these two photos and I can't help but just see pain and American history and privilege, when you look at these photographs now, how do you see these two photographs?

John Harkin (12:43):

I see more of the commonalities than the distinction. I don't, on the surface, see Black/white as this irreparable chasm. When Alex and I sat down and we spent the whole day together, I found more commonality than in a situation where people are not able to deal with each other.

Charles Monroe-Kane (13:15):

Alex, Reverend Gee, what about you? Do feel commonality looking at those photographs? There must have been a moment driving back in the car, maybe when you're like, oh, I wonder what it would've been like if I was a descendant of the other brother, of the white brother and still a Gee. Did you even think about that?

Alex Gee (13:32):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I often think that if my accomplishments, I'm a published author, there are things I've started, created a non-profit, created a movement. If I were white doing what I'm doing, I'd be a hero. And so, yeah, I think that if I were R.L's great-great-great-grandson, given some of the resources that they were given, there are days where I think, man, I could be a US Senator today. I could be the President of a university. And then I'll flip and think, but I'm only 54 and I'm Henderson's great-great-grandson and I can still do that stuff and not attribute it to being white and privileged.

Alex Gee (14:09):

I've got something inside me that's allowed me to catch up. My daughter's a preemie and the nurse told us to sort of watch it because preemies always feel the need to catch up. Like they know that their development is delayed, but there's an internal mechanism that just makes them just want to catch up, crawl, walk, et cetera, et cetera. I feel like a cultural preemie, like something inside me just looked around and said, "You know what? I got to be the fastest. I got to be the strongest. I've got to show that what people think about me and people who look like me, is not true."

Alex Gee (14:39):

And I feel like sitting at John's table, that preemie paused and said, "You know what? Maybe I've caught up."

Charles Monroe-Kane (14:47):

Maybe I caught up.

Alex Gee (14:48):

But to sit there as a Black man and feel like I don't have to play catch-up was redemptive. That was worth the fee. That was worth the flights down to New Orleans. To sit there and say, "I'm good." I left that meeting and that space feeling completely comfortable in my own skin and knowing that for no money in the world, would I trade being Henderson's son for being our R.L's son. And for that, in some ways, Charles, that was all the reparation that that table, that Saturday, in New Orleans could give me, and it was quite sufficient.

Anne Strainchamps (15:40):

Reverend Alex Gee is the Senior Pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church, and the CEO and Founder of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development in Madison, Wisconsin. Charles Monroe-Kane talked with him, and by the way, you can see the photo album of Reverend Gee's trip, including some of those historical photos on our website at And coming up...,

Erin Hoag (16:06):

We're going to head up this way at the hill here.

Steve Paulson (16:08):


Erin Hoag (16:09):

We've got a ways to go, just so you're aware.

Steve Paulson (16:11):

Okay. That's good to know.

Anne Strainchamps (16:13):

Steve Paulson never met a graveyard he didn't want to visit.

Erin Hoag (16:16):

It's a day for it.

Steve Paulson (16:18):


Erin Hoag (16:18):

It's clear.

Steve Paulson (16:18):


Erin Hoag (16:19):


Anne Strainchamps (16:21):

Today he's hunting for one very special, very elusive grave.

Erin Hoag (16:25):

I think that's John's and then one of these will be Beverly's as well. Oh, this is Thomas.

Steve Paulson (16:37):

And it's not the big stone here.

Erin Hoag (16:39):

Nope, this is Julia. That's his wife. His kids are off here. I don't-

Steve Paulson (16:45):

Eston is buried here, isn't he?

Erin Hoag (16:46):

I would assume he is.

Anne Strainchamps (16:49):

Looking for America's racial history in a graveyard, next. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Erin Hoag (16:57):

It's back here somewhere.

Anne Strainchamps (17:00):

And PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (17:20):

We left Steve Paulson in the middle of Madison's Forest Hill Cemetery. At least it was a beautiful day.

Steve Paulson (17:27):

It's quite beautiful with the snow covering here.

Erin Hoag (17:28):

Isn't it? It's really peaceful and lovely.

Anne Strainchamps (17:31):

He's with local historian, Erin Hoag and they're looking for one grave.

Erin Hoag (17:35):

It's just so buried we can't see it.

Steve Paulson (17:39):

Yeah. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (17:39):

Eston Hemings Jefferson.

Erin Hoag (17:42):

I'm going to rub off the snow here to see him. And this is, I think the family marker you're looking for.

Anne Strainchamps (17:49):

If you don't know who that is, he was the son of our third president, his Black son. Like a lot of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. And with one of them, her name was Sally Hemings, he had children. So how did one of them wind up in a Wisconsin graveyard? Well, that story is like a giant metaphor for America's tangled racial roots.

Erin Hoag (18:13):

Eston Hemings Jefferson was the youngest son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. He came to Madison, well, it would have been right after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. So we should go back a little bit in time. After Thomas Jefferson died, he granted all of his children their freedom .

Steve Paulson (18:34):

They grew up slaves.

Erin Hoag (18:36):

They grew up slaves.

Steve Paulson (18:37):

On Monticello, on Jefferson's plantation. And then once they are freed, some of them identified as African-American and others passed because they had light enough skin.

Erin Hoag (18:48):

They were all fairly fair-skinned. They could pass, even Julia, Eston's wife was also multiracial and so she could also pass as white. They were in the census in 1850 in Ohio identified as mulatto, but then after the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, Eston and Julia decided to take their three kids and move further North away from the border and they moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and here they passed as white. And they identified as white. They lived among white society. Nobody ever questioned that. And that is how they continued their life.

Erin Hoag (19:23):

John and Beverly, who were Eston's two sons, both served in the civil war. They served in Wisconsin regiments. At the time of the civil war, if you were African-American and identified that way, you had to be in a colored regiment. Both of them served in white regiments. So clearly there is no question that they were white and that they identified that way. After the war, John, the older one, moved to Memphis and became a cotton shipper, was very successful at it, but never married. There are some theories that he chose not to because if he had a child who was dark-skinned, that would sort of blow his cover, in a manner of speaking, and then he could lose everything. Beverly did marry, he had sons of his own. He stayed in Madison. He ran a very successful large carriage company here and purchased the first omnibus in Madison actually.

Steve Paulson (20:15):

So these children of a former slave became prosperous businessmen in Madison, Wisconsin.

Erin Hoag (20:21):

Yeah, they did. And I have no idea why they chose Madison. One would assume maybe it had something to do with the name, but it was also obviously further North, certainly safer from the Fugitive Slave Act.

Steve Paulson (20:33):

When I first heard that one of the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was buried a half a mile from where I live, I was stunned. This is a long way from Monticello, Virginia, where he grew up.

Erin Hoag (20:47):

Yeah, I was surprised too. And actually, I didn't know it until I was on our cemetery tours. And one of my co-workers pointed this out and I said, "I'm sorry, who?" They're all over the Midwest. They're still family members in Michigan, still some in Ohio, they all just kind of progressively moved to the Middle and North of the United States.

Steve Paulson (21:07):

Just thinking about the history of this, so you have the son of Jefferson, the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and then you have a child who grew up in slavery. It's like these threads of American history come together right here in the cemetery.

Erin Hoag (21:22):

Right. It's interesting how little you know about your local history and how it all kind of intersects in various ways. And it still affects us today. Thomas Jefferson is so famous, right? And he stands for so many things. I don't think you can avoid kind of feeling the weight of that here.

Anne Strainchamps (21:49):

Erin Hoag is an education specialist with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum here in Madison. So by now, pretty much everyone knows that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings and that they had children. But 20 years ago, the Jefferson - Hemings relationship was mostly a rumor that his white descendants denied. And then a brilliant legal scholar, Annette Gordon-Reed proved it, with historical records, stories passed down by Sally Hemings' children, even DNA evidence. She became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for History followed by a MacArthur Genius Award. And she told Steve Paulson, this story is a perfect example of the way many Americans have tried to bury and deny the real history of slavery.

Annette Gordon-Reed (22:40):

I think most people in the Black community did not doubt it because we understand that this kind of thing happened quite a bit, and so it didn't seem like it was wild and crazy. I would say that most historians did not believe it was true and there were a variety of reasons. There was sort of an old view: "well, Jefferson was a Southern gentleman... "

Steve Paulson (23:00):

He wouldn't do this.

Annette Gordon-Reed (23:02):

He wouldn't do this. There was this sort of treacly treatment of Southern life -- moonlight and magnolias and honor, and all that kind of stuff, which is not real. All those kinds of things are based upon lies, obviously. But then there were also people who felt that he was too racist to have been involved in a long-term liaison, relationship, connection, with an African-American woman. So it was either he was too honorable or he was too racist.

Steve Paulson (23:32):

Well, we should give a brief sketch, a brief history of what we know about the connection between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. So it started in Paris, right? When Jefferson went over to Paris and he was what? Ambassador to-

Annette Gordon-Reed (23:45):

He went over for a diplomatic mission. Jefferson went over in 1784 and he took his eldest daughter, Martha, called Patsy, and James Hemings, who was one of Sally Hemings' older brothers. And he took James over to have him trained as a chef. Jefferson like French cooking and he wanted his own chef at Monticello. He left behind two of his daughters and Sally Hemings, who was the companion to these girls. They were all children basically. Sally Hemings is only a few years older at this time than these girls.

Annette Gordon-Reed (24:19):

During the time that Jefferson is there, the younger daughter dies and Jefferson at this point is determined to have his other daughter brought to him, but he asks for her to come over with, he says, "a careful Negro woman." Instead, Jefferson's sister-in-law, who in this convoluted story, was also Sally Hemings' half-sister because Jefferson's wife and Sally Hemings were half-sisters, they had the same father.

Steve Paulson (24:44):

The same white father.

Annette Gordon-Reed (24:46):

The same white father, John Wales. And they sent her over and Sally Hemings is 14 at this time and Polly, the younger daughter is about nine, so she is the sort of caretaker-slash-companion to Polly. And at some point during this time period, Madison Hemings said his mother became Mr. Jefferson's concubine. It's sort of interesting because everybody called him Mr. Jefferson when they're speaking to other people and France was not free soil in the sense that you set foot in France and you were immediately free, but everybody who petitioned for freedom in France had the petition granted. So James and Sally Hemings could have remained there and they thought about doing it.

Steve Paulson (25:29):

This is fascinating. So they are slaves back-

Annette Gordon-Reed (25:32):

Back in Virginia.

Steve Paulson (25:33):

Back in Virginia but in Paris, presumably, they just need to petition for their freedom and they could be free.

Annette Gordon-Reed (25:40):

They could be free people. And I think Jefferson was on the defensive about this because he does something that he continues later on: he pays them wages while they're there. One of the things I'll never know, obviously, but I'd like to know, is how they presented themselves, because these are two people who might have been able to pass for white.

Steve Paulson (26:00):

They were light-skinned.

Annette Gordon-Reed (26:01):

They're light-skinned people and they could well have presented themselves as just servants to Jefferson without this other overlay of slavery. So, yes, they could have had that. Jefferson, according to Madison Hemings, wanted Sally Hemings to come back with him and promised her that she would have a nice life at Monticello and that their children would be freed when they were 21.

Steve Paulson (26:27):

And of course the other side of this is, by the time they go back to America, Sally Hemings is pregnant with Jefferson's child and she's 16-years-old, what's she going to do? I suppose if she stays in Paris, that would be pretty tough.

Annette Gordon-Reed (26:41):

Will be tough. But if she were there with James... I know someone is actually working on a sort of alternative novel about Sally Hemings staying there. One of the things that could have happened is that she could have stayed there with Jefferson's secretary, William Short, who was anti-slavery, who remained in Paris and in Europe for a number of years. Now, she could have been a maid to him. James could have been the cook for him. Yes, it would have been tough, but it could have been tough back at Monticello. Jefferson could have reneged on everything, he could have died.

Steve Paulson (27:14):

At least according to Madison Hemings, the son who later wrote about this after talking with his mother, Sally and James extracted promises from Jefferson that they would be treated differently once they go back.

Annette Gordon-Reed (27:25):

Well, Sally certainly did. That was the condition. Madison Hemings said that was the condition on which his mother came back. She would be treated well and her children would be free. And so they come back to Monticello. The sons are put under the tutelage of one of her brothers, John Hemings, who was a master carpenter at Monticello.

Steve Paulson (27:45):

And how many children did she have?

Annette Gordon-Reed (27:46):

She had seven children, but only four of them live to adulthood, which was the sort of thing that happened in that time period.

Steve Paulson (27:52):

And as far as we know, Thomas Jefferson was the father of all of them?

Annette Gordon-Reed (27:54):

As far as we know, the father of all of them. And that's what Madison Hemings says and Israel Gillette Jefferson says, and then the DNA is corroborating. It's not a strict paternity test, but when you look at anything, it's a compilation of evidence. It's not any one killer thing.

Steve Paulson (28:09):

What did people say about Sally Hemings? How did people describe her?

Annette Gordon-Reed (28:13):

Well, they didn't say much. Most of the descriptions of her are physical descriptions. People describe her as being very beautiful. That was the thing that people fixated on. One newspaper report when the scandal broke, someone said that she was industrious and orderly, so-

Steve Paulson (28:31):

Now, when you said the scandal broke, some of Jefferson's political enemies heard about this and they tried to make hay about it: Jefferson has this scandal in his own family.

Annette Gordon-Reed (28:43):

It caused a real stir. It sort of spread everywhere. It didn't really affect Jefferson's career, in the sense that he was reelected resoundingly.

Steve Paulson (28:52):

And maybe some people reacted that way because it actually was not that uncommon.

Annette Gordon-Reed (28:56):

No, no, no. Certainly people in the South understood that this kind of thing happened. Jefferson had a reputation, however, as this sort of philosopher, the stereotypes that people have. Well, if you're really intellectual, you're not interested in-

Steve Paulson (29:11):


Annette Gordon-Reed (29:12):

In sex, which is ridiculous. But 18th century people were not prudes. People had sex and they had a different attitude about sex. The Victorian age comes later, these people were not Victorians, but I think realistically people thought this is the South. This is what happens when men are in control of women.

Steve Paulson (29:31):

So how would you describe this relationship between Jefferson and, I mean the question is, what word do we use? You've mentioned that their son, Madison Hemings, referred to his mother as Jefferson's "concubine." The word "mistress" has been used to describe her, but is there an appropriate word here?

Annette Gordon-Reed (29:48):

Well, the word "concubine", I actually went back and looked at legal cases. White women were referred to as concubines. A concubine was a person who lived with a man without being married. Period. That's what it was. And there are some cases when the men married the women, so you can go from concubine to being wife.

Steve Paulson (30:07):

And we should point out that Jefferson's wife had died before any of this happened.

Annette Gordon-Reed (30:11):

Yes, Jefferson's wife died in 1782 and the Hemings women tell a story that when she was on her death bed, she asked Jefferson not to remarry. The Hemings women say that she said she did not want another woman over her children. They said Jefferson agreed to that. So she died. He was 39-years-old, and he died when he was 83. He never remarried. That's a long time.

Steve Paulson (30:40):

And apparently, this relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings went on for a long time, for years and years.

Annette Gordon-Reed (30:47):

Yes. The span of her childbearing is basically 20 years, so you can only say that's the definite time period where you know for a fact they're having sex, but she was his chambermaid until he died. He arranged their lives so that she was in it all the time, basically, for 38 years. The Hemings family oral history talks about how he felt about her. One of Madison's granddaughters said, "Mr. Jefferson loved her dearly, but he doesn't talk about how she felt about him."

Steve Paulson (31:20):

Because that is the question a lot of people ask, did they love each other?

Annette Gordon-Reed (31:22):

Yeah, people ask me that all the time and there's no real way to know how to answer that.

Steve Paulson (31:26):

Is that a legitimate question to ask if we're talking about a master-slave relationship?

Annette Gordon-Reed (31:34):

Well, a lot of people think it's not an appropriate question to ask because it's not possible for that to be, but I don't subscribe to that because human beings do all kinds of things that they shouldn't do. I might say, "I can list all the reasons why you shouldn't feel that way," but that doesn't have anything to do with the way human beings live in the world. I think that's largely a political judgment, it's sort of after the fact political judgment about how uncomfortable we are with this idea. Madison Hemings talks about them in the Recollections. He clearly is talking about them as if they are a family. And that's kind of jolting in a way.

Steve Paulson (32:14):

Sally and her children were treated very differently than the other slaves on Jefferson plantation, right?

Annette Gordon-Reed (32:20):

Yes. Madison Hemings says that they were happy growing up because they knew they were not going to be slaves all their lives.

Steve Paulson (32:29):

What eventually happened to the children? The children who did survive into adulthood of Sally and Tom?

Annette Gordon-Reed (32:35):

Well, Beverly, Beverly is a male and his sister, Harriet, those were the two oldest children, they left Monticello to live as white people. They don't have freedom papers and you can see why they don't want them because if they had freedom papers, people would know that they were part black because they'd been enslaved, and you'd be able to trace them. One reason we don't know about their descendants is because they have no paper trail. We know about Madison and Eston, and that's the thing about documents, that's the importance of them. Once you put things down in writing, you can at least begin to locate where people are and then research and find out about them.

Steve Paulson (33:14):

But this is fascinating -- you're saying that some of the children moved away and passed as white and others didn't. They retained their African-American identity.

Annette Gordon-Reed (33:24):

Yes. Madison and Eston are freed in Jefferson's will. Madison is 21 at the time and Eston is 17, so Jefferson frees them and makes them apprentices to John Hemings. So they live in Charlottesville. They take their mother. Sally Hemings is not formally freed. She's, what they call given your time. She leaves Monticello, and they move into Charlottesville and they stay there until she dies in 1835. And then Madison leaves first, he goes out to Chillicothe, Ohio, and then Eston follows him. Eston lives in Ohio for a time until things get to be really bad. They start cracking down on Black people and he decides that he doesn't want that for his children. So he moves to Madison, Wisconsin. He changes his racial designation in the census in Virginia. He is in Ohio. He is colored and he's a Negro. He changes his name from Eston Hemings to Eston Hemings Jefferson or E.H. Jefferson, that's what he goes by. And his children changed their names and the children become very prosperous people. They owned hotels and a cab company. They have a life that they could not have had if they stayed in the Black community.

Annette Gordon-Reed (34:42):

So people around him knew the story, but eventually that family line loses the story of Sally Hemings. They lose the story of Thomas Jefferson, and they don't find out until Fawn Brodie's book, in The Recollections, when she's talking about Eston. They thought that their ancestor's name was E-S-T-Y Jefferson, and that they were related to Jefferson through an uncle, because you can't keep Jefferson as an ancestor because we know Jefferson didn't have any legal sons with his wife, so they made up a new story, which people who pass have to do or else it doesn't work. And so they didn't find about the connection until the 1970s. They'd been trying to do genealogy and they sort of get back to a certain point and they couldn't go any further and it's because they had changed the story.

Steve Paulson (35:35):

So the big question that people have been asking for decades is, what do we make of Thomas Jefferson? This revered founding father who wrote the major part of the Declaration of Independence saying that all men are created equal, the great document of freedom and equality, who is not just a slave owner, but had this intimate relationship with this slave woman for years and had children together. What did we do with that?

Annette Gordon-Reed (36:01):

Well, that kind of thing was a part of being a slave owner. The real problem with Jefferson is the connection to slavery. And we've always known that. But I think what is happening now is people are understanding that slavery was not just about making people work for no money or whipping people or whatever, it was an institution that ended up with mixed blood lines in a lot of different ways -- through rape, through connections that we don't understand and that make us uncomfortable. I think the thing to make out of it is that Jefferson was a person.

Steve Paulson (36:34):

We should take him down from the mountain as this revered icon.

Annette Gordon-Reed (36:39):

No, there are things to admire about Jefferson. And we're just going to have to grapple with the fact that a person who wrote the Declaration of Independence and helped create the country, not just Jefferson, but Washington and all of them, a number of them were slave holders. They held people in bondage and profited from that. I think you have to take the bitter with the sweet and I don't know that it's ever good to revere people as gods in a way, because they're always going to disappoint you. I think a better way to look at it is to say, this is what these human beings did on their time in earth, and some of it was good and some it was bad and what can we live with and what things do we reject? How do we move on from that? Jefferson didn't think that we were going to stay in one place.

Steve Paulson (37:27):

He had a pretty pessimistic view of race relations, didn't he? He was racist. He thought Black people were inferior, were not as smart as white people.

Annette Gordon-Reed (37:36):

And that's what most people at that time thought and that's what a lot of people think today. There's no question about that. Even though he says, "I ventured it as a suspicion only," but it's not a suspicion. He believed that whites were better than Blacks. That was the currency of the time. I do think he thought slavery was wrong, but it's like many other things that we believe that we don't live by. This was not what really animated Jefferson. We're interested in slavery and race and we should be, but that's not the main thing he was interested in. He was interested in the United States of America. He'd been part of a revolution that overthrew a king and created a new society. That's what he was fixated on. That slavery thing that'll solve itself, but it's like many things in life -- you say, if I could just fix this, that little thing over there, it'll be fine. But it's that little thing over there that destroys the thing that you love.

Steve Paulson (38:27):


Annette Gordon-Reed (38:28):

And slavery was, he came to see, the rock upon which the Union will be split. And that was true.

Steve Paulson (38:36):

Yeah. Thank you very much. This is just a fascinating history.

Annette Gordon-Reed (38:39):

Thank you for having me.

Anne Strainchamps (38:47):

That's Harvard legal historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, talking with Steve Paulson. Her book, The Hemingses of Monticello, won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Anne Strainchamps (39:00):

So today you don't have to go digging in libraries to find your roots. With genetic ancestry testing, all you need is a drop of spit and a test tube. And in one college classroom, that's how the semester begins.

Anita Forman (39:17):

For the past 12 years, I have had people actually take the DNA ancestry test and both look at the diversity within, and then how that connects you to other people you might not have thought you were connected to in the past. We reveal on a day altogether and then have a discussion, and it's always fascinating. We hand out the results in an envelope or in a folder. We say, "Now go ahead and open them." You're looking at a pie chart. It takes a minute to process what you're seeing. And then you start to hear the responses. Somebody goes, "Yes." Somebody else goes, "I can't believe this. Where did this come from? What is that?" The results are in, let the outrage begin.

Anne Strainchamps (40:18):

Next, how genetic testing is changing conversations about race. I'm Anne Strainchamps and it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (40:45):

This hour, we've been talking about how the legacy of slavery lives on, not just in history books, not just in our laws and institutions and communities, but in our blood. So what changes when you realize your own genetic ancestry is both Black and white, African and European? Well at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, Anita Forman leads the DNA Discussion Project. Every semester, students in her class take a genetic ancestry test and she says the results can change the stories they tell about themselves and others, often in profound ways.

Anita Forman (41:22):

I started 12 years ago when I read an article that said you could trace somebody's ancestry based on their DNA. And I thought, boy, I bet that there are a lot of people walking around thinking their backgrounds are one thing but they're different, and how would that change the conversation that we had about race?

Anne Strainchamps (41:42):

Were you surprised how many people are willing to undergo genetic testing, because I think it's kind of a big decision.

Anita Forman (41:49):

Yeah. I was surprised from day one because people have been so excited about participating. Just last year, we received a grant so that we could buy 150 kits. Well, 1,200 people replied and wanted to be involved.

Anne Strainchamps (42:04):


Anita Forman (42:04):

So that tells you something about the interest in this.

Anne Strainchamps (42:08):

Paint me a picture of this. You have a class full of undergraduate kids and they all spit in a test tube and send it away. And is there a big unveiling day when they get their results?

Anita Forman (42:19):

Yes. And almost invariably, there's something there that is unexpected and people are funny. It really runs the gamut. Somebody will say, "The test is not right. Test it over." But they also start to see that they're connected to people that they did not think they were connected to. And it's really neat. In one setting, there was a young white guy who had two or 3% Africans in his background and he was sitting next to two African-American gentlemen and they wanted to high five him. And they saw him sort of reflecting, I'm I high-fiving here? Is this appropriate?

Anne Strainchamps (42:54):

Have you gone through your own genetic testing?

Anita Forman (42:57):

I have. It took me 10 years to do it.

Anne Strainchamps (42:59):

You're kidding.

Anita Forman (43:00):

And I said, "What would Freud say?" Because in the beginning, the tests were so expensive that I did not want to use one on myself, but five, six, seven years in, I thought I probably should do this. And indeed found some things I expected and some things that I didn't expect.

Anne Strainchamps (43:16):

Like what?

Anita Forman (43:17):

I'm African-American, and I was surprised how much European was in my background, 25% European, which floored me. The most stunning experience that I had was that I went to Ghana several years before I took the test, and as part of that trip, we went to a place called The Door Of No Return, which is where the slaves went out on the ships and just never returned.

Anita Forman (43:42):

And when I looked at my profile, I had significant Ghana in my background and I thought, oh my goodness, one of my relatives literally probably went through that door. And I was surprised at my own reaction. And I've heard other people say that they have been surprised at their own reaction.

Anne Strainchamps (44:04):

Surprised how?

Anita Forman (44:06):

Just how emotional that was for me. And I think that that is something that a lot of African-Americans experience. It's hard to articulate it. It's sort of a low level anxiety, just this tremendous feeling of sadness, as a person who has a background in slavery, where you were systematically told that you were just not fully human. To face that directly, by looking at my DNA, was very potent for me.

Anne Strainchamps (44:41):

I imagine that there must be such a mixed range of emotions. On the one hand, maybe there's some real joy in discovering your African roots, which particular parts of Africa, andbeing able to really connect viscerally. And at the same time, as you said, it makes that legacy of slavery really personal.

Anita Forman (45:06):

Everybody's history is complex though. You do not survive from the beginning of time without a very complicated story. We grapple over who's oppressed and who's the oppressor? If you dig back into your past, you have both. Your genes hold a very complicated story, so when I hear somebody who's African-American make the statement that we were raped by them, genetically, you carry both of those and your genes do not care what the backstory is.

Anne Strainchamps (45:42):

But then what do you do with that, if you think 25% or whatever portion of your genetic heritage is European, and you know that your ancestors probably were raped by slave traders or owners, what do you do with that?

Anita Forman (45:57):

Well, so you can also say some of my ancestors were rapists. That's what I'm saying. That genetically, I wouldn't be here if anything had been different in any way. I was surprised and many people are surprised, how much Scandinavian is in their background. Well, a lot of that is the Vikings beating up the British. And so there is history that's carried in those genes. That's really what this project is about, about not seeing race as something that pits you against me, but something that tells a story and it gives us an opportunity that we had not had before to see ourselves as just deeply connected at the most fundamental level.

Anne Strainchamps (46:49):

I think many, if not most, white Americans grow up believing their ancestry is a hundred percent European. In your experience, how frequently do students discover that they're multiracial?

Anita Forman (47:00):

We've been doing statistical analysis and the group that is most likely to overestimate their background is whites. Whites will generally say, "I have a hundred percent European," and often, they will be predominantly European, but there are other things in their background. And even if somebody has two, three, four, or 5%, they are completely flabbergasted. One gentlemen, who was really interesting, a white guy, said that there had been a story in his family that his great-grandmother was Black and that she had given away his grandfather so that he would have a better life, he was biracial, and that he had seen her only once in life and it was under all these clandestine circumstances. And indeed we tested him and he had 3% African ancestry, which would be consistent with that. But for the most part, people have these percentages and there isn't a narrative, and it's not surprising because look at the history in particular of the United States where one drop of blood, and so if somebody was light, they "passed" -- they lied about it.

Anne Strainchamps (48:13):

So does this open the door to interesting conversations when the kids go back home?

Anita Forman (48:18):

Oh yes. Sometimes stories tumble out that they hadn't expected. One gentlemen took the test, it was really funny. Many people will say they have native American in their background -- whites and Blacks overestimate the native American in their background, which is interesting because they have these romantic images of native Americans, but think about the real story of how native Americans were treated. But at any rate, there was a gentleman who said he had native American in his background. The evidence is always a woman with a long dark braid. So anyway, we test and he comes up as 10% African. So he goes back to his family and I said, "God bless him." His family said, "Ah, Maybe she was Black." So.

Anne Strainchamps (49:00):

Do conversations ever get heated or uncomfortable?

Anita Forman (49:05):

Oh sure. There are people who feel very proud of their background. I'm proud I'm Italian. I'm proud I'm Black, I'm proud I'm white, whatever it might be. And if your identity is tied into a singular narrative, having somebody push that narrative is going to be upsetting.

Anne Strainchamps (49:26):

But I can imagine that this might play out in a class like maybe a kid who has identified as a hundred percent white European discovers that she's got some African ancestry. Maybe it's an uncomfortable kind of situation for her. I can imagine a kid sitting next to her who's African-American might be really offended and say, "What? You're not happy to have African blood. Are you racist?"

Anita Forman (49:54):

Yeah. And I certainly understand why somebody who identifies as white is going to find it upsetting if they find African in their background. For heaven sakes, look at how African-Americans have been treated in this country, legally and socially. To delve into that, that's a real learning experience. What are their beliefs? Might there have been somebody in their background who hid that for particular reasons and how do we move forward with that? So it happens, and not just with African ancestry, but with Middle Eastern. One fellow in a class had two or 3% Middle Eastern and his family was up in arms about it.

Anne Strainchamps (50:35):

So what kind of conversations do you have in classrooms after the students get their results? And what do they wind up talking about with each other? Because the revelation is just the beginning.

Anita Forman (50:49):

The interesting thing is that over time, people start to talk about race differently. You see a younger generation already being more flexible. And again, in our research, we found that older people were more rigid about their backgrounds. I'm Black, I'm white, whatever. Younger people were much more fluid in terms of how they saw race and how they saw their racial identity, and so we see these genetic tests as really just another element of making race more fluid and allowing people to live with more ambiguity around race. Younger people for a variety of reasons, and these genetic tests are just part of it, are much more comfortable with ambiguity, with contested race, and with having this conversation.

Anne Strainchamps (51:45):

Have you noticed that young people are happy to discover that they're multiracial?

Anita Forman (51:51):

Yes. Much more so. We'll have young people test and often say, "I thought I was going to have more stuff than that." They'll be disappointed that they don't have something and we even did one project with children who were, I think the youngest was nine-years-old, one of the questions was what would you like to have in your ancestry? What would be the best background? And he said, "I want everything."

Anne Strainchamps (52:17):

Do you ever wonder what would happen if everybody just grew up knowing their genetic ancestry? Like what if genetic testing was mandatory in first grade? What would that change about how we think and talk about race in this country?

Anita Forman (52:31):

I do think that we're going to get to a different place in talking about race. Now, given some of the things that are going on socially and politically, people say to me, "How can you say that?" But I think that some of the turmoil that we are experiencing right now is because things are changing and it's really hard for people. I think there's a point of panic before you break through to another level and I think that there are enough good people who want to talk about these things, who want to figure out how we can live together. I don't think we have to give up our understanding of real histories that have occurred in the United States and globally, but I think that becomes part of the narrative that is not just the African-American narrative or the Italian, it's OUR narrative. It belongs to all of us, so that when we look at our genes we realize that people are our people.

Anne Strainchamps (53:41):

Anita Forman. She leads the DNA Discussion Project at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. And that's it for our show today, but there's always more in our podcast feed. And if you want to find out more about the backstory to this show and all the behind the scenes research that went into it, sign up for our newsletter. It's full of extended written features, audio extras, and stuff about what we're reading. To subscribe, head over to To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison and the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Our show is produced by Charles Monroe-Kane, Haleema Shah, Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Mark Riechers. Joe Hardtke is our Sound Designer and Technical Director. Steve Paulson is our Executive Producer, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for spending time with us.

Last modified: 
January 12, 2024