A Lawyer's New Jefferson Memorial

By Yabroff, Jennie | Newsweek, October 13, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Lawyer's New Jefferson Memorial


Yabroff, Jennie, Newsweek


Byline: Jennie Yabroff

The next chapter in the Hemings saga

When she was in first grade, Annette Gordon-Reed made history. Although Brown v. Board of Education had passed a decade earlier, the school district of Conroe, Texas, where Gordon-Reed lived in 1963, operated under a system called "freedom of choice." Gordon-Reed's mother, a teacher at the "black" school, and her father, a local businessman, knew that "freedom of choice" really meant de facto segregation, so to challenge it they insisted that their daughter attend the "white" school. "I had a sense of being on display," says Gordon-Reed, remembering also how her grandmother went to a fancy Houston department store and bought her granddaughter a new wardrobe, so she would make a good impression on the white students and their families. "It was uncomfortable. But we had this notion that blacks, whether you wanted to be or not, were going to be judged. You represent the race."

That early, firsthand experience with the interplay of race and history informs much of Gordon-Reed's work, including her compulsively readable new book, "The Hemingses of Monticello," in which she traces the family history of Sally Hemings, the slave who had a 38-year relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed, a former lawyer, also edited an anthology of essays about race and the law, and co-wrote Vernon Jordan's 2001 memoir, "Vernon Can Read!" But she is best known for 1997's groundbreaking "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," which examined historians' treatment of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, and made a strong case that Jefferson fathered seven children with Hemings. DNA testing a year after the book came out vindicated Gordon-Reed's assertion, and made her book a cause celebre among Jefferson scholars. Joseph Ellis, whose National Book Award-winning biography of Jefferson, "American Sphinx," claimed Jefferson never slept with Hemings, later conceded the point, writing that it was difficult not to conclude Jefferson had been "living a lie."

Jefferson has been a subject of fascination for Gordon-Reed ever since she read a school biography as a girl. When she was 14, she joined the Book-of-the-Month Club so she could read Fawn Brodie's "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Portrait." "The fact that he loved books and I loved books was something that attracted me to him," she says. "I'm not really a Jeffersonian in my political philosophy. It was mainly the personality, the endless curiosity that I found and find attractive about him. …

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