Jefferson Unveiled

By Roach, Ronald | Black Issues in Higher Education, November 26, 1998 | Go to article overview

Jefferson Unveiled


Roach, Ronald, Black Issues in Higher Education


Now that DNA evidence conclusively proves the third U.S. president fathered the child of a slave, scholars weigh in on what it means for the discipline of American History

It came as little surprise to law professor Annette Gordon-Reed that DNA testing conclusively proved that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by Sally Hemings, a slave woman he owned.

"I was ninety-eight percent sure the test would reveal the connection," the New York Law School professor said.

Before the scientific testing had gotten underway, Gordon-Reed, a legal scholar and an authority on Jefferson, had already written that the 200-year debate would require nothing short of hard scientific evidence to prove that the nation's third president had a sexual relationship with a slave.

"I suspect that if [verifying the story] is ever done, it will be the result of the miracles of modern science and all the wonders of DNA research, and not because of any interpretation of documents and statements," Gordon-Reed wrote in her 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.

Last month, a scientific experiment conducted by a retired University of Virginia medical school professor showed that Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings, the youngest son of the seven children born to Sally Hemings. Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired pathology professor, established a similar or exact male chromosome link between a living descendant of Field Jefferson, the former president's uncle, and John Weeks Jefferson, a living descendant of Eston Hemings. A link between the Field Jefferson line, however, was not established with the living male descendants of Thomas Woodson, the first child of Sally Hemings. The test applied to males descending from their direct line of male forefathers.

Nonetheless, the DNA evidence coupled with the historical evidence known about Hemings's descendants is leading the academic community to accept the argument that Jefferson had a long-term relationship with Hemings, fathering possibly all seven of the children born to her.

Black scholars, like Gordon-Reed, say the DNA testing only confirmed what they had believed all along -- that Jefferson had a relationship with Hemings. For Black scholars, the statements by descendants of Sally Hemings, the oral histories of the families descended from her, and other historical evidence supporting the claims of the controversial relationship had already proved conclusive enough.

"A fairly convincing case had been made supporting the arguments that Jefferson and Hemings had a long-standing relationship," said Dr. Gerald Gill, a professor of history at Tufts University.

Black scholars have been annoyed by the arguments that White scholars have deployed to defend Jefferson against the relationship charges. For generations, the nation's leading scholars on Jefferson ardently maintained that the third U.S. president had no sexual liaison with Sally Hemings. These White male scholars placed little weight on the written and oral accounts by the Black descendants of Hemings.

The relationship charge, initially brought forth by a disgruntled political job-seeker in 1802, placed Jefferson under a cloud of suspicion that his defenders strenuously fought from the time of his presidency until now. Contemporary Jefferson defenders have included now-deceased historians Dumas Maloone, Douglas Adair, and Virginius Dabney, and John C. …

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