Mary Jefferson had always thought of herself and her family as the typical white Midwestern American family – a mixture of European blood that it was safe to say they were “just American.”
But when she discovered that she was a descendent of third president Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, Mary Jefferson realized that her family history had even greater ties to American history – controversial ties that many Americans and historians consider taboo to this day.
Jefferson, 66, spoke to the Glendora Genealogical Group during their monthly meeting Tuesday about her experiences in learning about her family’s heritage.
Jefferson said she first heard about her connection to the Declaration of Independence author when a cousin contacted her mother about possibly being related to Thomas Jefferson. Years later, when Jefferson turned 50, she began seriously researching her family history and during a visit to Monticello, she connected with researchers who were looking into Thomas Jefferson’s possible paternity of Eston Hemings Jefferson, the youngest son of Sally Hemings.
Rumors of a relationship with Hemings followed Thomas Jefferson even before his death in 1826. It is believed that he had a 42-year relationship with Hemings and fathered her six children, four of whom survived into adulthood. An interracial relationship was illegal in 19th century America, and yet rumors of the Jefferson-Hemings affair persisted.
More than 200 years later in 1998, a DNA test revealed that descendents of Hemings’ son Eston Hemings Jefferson – Mary Jefferson’s great-great grandfather – were linked to the Thomas Jefferson bloodline.
Soon the media exploded with news that Jefferson likely fathered children with one of his slaves. The story made the cover of U.S. News and Mary Jefferson and other members of the newly discovered Jefferson bloodline were invited to the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Jefferson said she connected with family members, both white and black and of varying backgrounds and faiths.
“I think this touches so many families in so many ways, and it helps them learn about their own family heritage,” said Mary Jefferson. “It gives them validity…there are family secrets, stories that couldn't be told publicly because of the social climate or fear of social rejection.”
But while Jefferson and her newfound family members basked in the media attention, the backlash soon followed, even from people she considered friends. People advised her to keep quiet about her connection to Hemings, that she should be ashamed of her distant slavery roots.
A friend even remarked that she now knew how Jefferson’s son “got his kinky hair.”
To this day, there are those who remain skeptical of the Jefferson-Hemings DNA report – including descendents of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, and other historical and heritage groups. There are those who believe that Thomas Jefferson’s newfound bloodline would taint the Founding Father’s legacy.
“I live in a rather naïve world and when this happened, I never realized how people can be so ugly,” said Jefferson. “There were times that I wouldn’t tell people about my connection to Thomas Jefferson because I wasn’t sure how they would react. Racism is so ugly and so alive. My black cousins experience the worst of it.”
Jefferson said she still keeps in touch with her newfound family members and remains proud that she comes from a diverse family line.
“I think diversity is so rich, and to exclude or to include someone based on how much color you can see, or anything else, is a shame,” said Jefferson.
Pat Chavarria of the Glendora Genealogical Group said that she hopes Jefferson’s story would inspire people to look into their own family history.
She said the Genealogical Group, which will soon celebrate its 30th year, does not provide research services into individual family trees. Rather, the group assists members in their own research into their family heritage by promoting genealogical discussions and providing information on how to research family bloodlines.
Chavarria, who was adopted as a baby, said she became interested in genealogy when she decided to find her birth parents in 1990.
“Not only did I find out about my birth parents and their family history, I learned about my adopted parents’ family history,” said Chavarria, who has traced her family’s roots as far back as the 1600’s. “In fact, I probably know more about my birth family than they do themselves.”
The Glendora Genealogical Group meets 7 p.m. every fourth Tuesday in the Elm Room at the La Fetra Senior Center, 333 E. Foothill Blvd.