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Asserting her ancestry

Washington resident says she's the great-great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but some Americans still question whether the two had an affair

Sunday, January 28, 2001

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The freckles on Clara Fisher's face are numerous, dark and Jeffersonian. She's also tempted to say they're ungainly. "In a way, you want to cover them up," the Washington resident said. "In another way, it's who I am."

Clara Fisher of Washington says she is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

Similarly, for 200 years, America has been torn about the story of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his beautiful teen-age slave, Sally Hemings, the pair Fisher calls her great-great-great-grandparents.

To some, the notion of a founding father's liaison with a slave girl is ungainly, and they have refused to consider it. Jefferson's supporters and some historians have argued against the idea vehemently, as if trying to hide with a layer of invective what Fisher can conceal with makeup and a sponge. Others have delved into the story, seeking a clearer picture of Jefferson and his legacy.

Like Fisher, 38, a youth counselor, Jefferson was tall, fair and freckled. Fisher's late father, Edward J. Lee, told her they were descended from Jefferson and Hemings' second-youngest child, Madison, who was born in 1805 and died in 1877.

 
  Illustration: Clara Fisher's family tree

   
 

Lee heard the story from his parents, who heard it from the preceding generation. Fisher said her ancestors had no reason to perpetuate a lie.

"We all knew who we were, and black history has always been oral history," said Fisher, who has told the story to her sons, David James Fisher Jr., 9, and Zachary Lee Fischer, 7.

This weekend, Fisher and her husband, David James Fisher Sr., planned to take the children to Monticello, Jefferson's former plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia, now a national tourist site. The trip dovetails with Black History Month that begins Thursday.

Fisher regards Jefferson as a great man who had the foibles of the average antebellum guy. She contends America has had a difficult time coming to grips with the Hemings tale because of an almost blind devotion to the nation's founding fathers.

"In a way, the country needs to idolize these people," Fisher said. "But it's not a very practical way of looking at history. They've become icons."

As author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson occupies an especially lofty place in the pantheon of patriots. He was the nation's third president, instigator of the Louisiana Purchase and a founder of the Democratic Party.

The nation has had no choice but to accept one unsettling detail about Jefferson -- that he proclaimed "all men are created equal" and owned slaves until the day he died. DNA testing of members of the Jefferson and Hemings families in 1998 has forced America to take a closer look at the Hemings legend, too.

The analysis showed Hemings' youngest son, Eston, was fathered by a Jefferson; it didn't prove Thomas Jefferson was the father. However, the results swayed the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which found it unlikely that one of Jefferson's relatives fathered the children.

"Although paternity cannot be established with absolute certainty, our evaluation of the best available evidence suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings," foundation President Daniel P. Jordan announced in January 2000.

Fisher didn't need DNA results to help her believe Jefferson and Hemings had a relationship. In her view, "it couldn't help but have happened."

Jefferson was gentle, powerful and alone. Hemings was desirable and close at hand. Contemporaries described her as "light colored," "decidedly good looking" and "very handsome" with straight hair down her back.

"I think it's possible for a young teen-age girl to be in love with a man of power," Fisher said.

Long before Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky shocked the nation, Jefferson's neighbors gossiped about Hemings' children and what was thought to be happening behind closed doors at Monticello.

"It was evidently their very light skin and pronounced resemblance to Jefferson that led to local talk of Jefferson's paternity," the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello, said in its report last year.

One-time Jefferson ally James T. Callender was the first to whip the rumors into a political frenzy. Callender went public with the story in 1802, two years into Jefferson's presidency, angry that Jefferson had declined to appoint him postmaster of Richmond, Va.

The president's supporters dismissed the story as the concoction of a malicious drunk, without bothering to assess the accuracy of the report, Annette Gordon-Reed said in her 1997 book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy." Published before the DNA evidence, the book laid out a circumstantial case for the story.

Callender was wrong on some points, but he also had accurate inside information about life at Monticello. He knew Hemings was a seamstress, for example, and knew how many times she had given birth. He wasn't just "sitting there making this up," Gordon-Reed, associate professor at New York School of Law, said in an interview.

Madison Hemings, who learned carpentry at Monticello, told the Pike County (Ohio) Republican in 1873 that the relationship began when Jefferson was minister to France in the 1780s. At 14, Hemings had traveled there with Jefferson's daughter, Mary, to be her servant.

Jefferson was a widower by then. Before dying, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson reportedly made her 39-year-old husband promise not to remarry.

"She should have been more specific," Fisher said with a chuckle. "What I really mean, Tom ..."

Though formally anathema, sexual relations between the races was not uncommon.

Sally Hemings' mother, Elizabeth Hemings, was a slave. Her father is believed to have been John Wayles, later Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law. Sally Hemings and her mother went to Monticello after Wayles' death.

In other words, Sally Hemings and Jefferson's wife Martha were half-sisters who lived worlds apart in the culture of the Old South. If Hemings reminded Jefferson of his late wife, Fisher speculated, that may have attracted him to her all the more.

By Madison Hemings' account, his mother was pregnant when she returned to Monticello from France. The child died shortly after birth, and Sally Hemings later bore Jefferson four other children, including himself.

Contrary to Madison Hemings' account, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation counts six children of Sally Hemings -- two daughters who died in infancy, daughter Harriet and sons Beverley, Madison and Eston. The six were born between 1795 and 1808, with Harriet, Madison and Eston coming during Jefferson's presidency.

The foundation said it has no evidence to substantiate the claim, publicized by Callender, that Jefferson and Hemings in 1790 had a son, Tom, reportedly sent away from Monticello at a young age to live with a family named Woodson.

Historians have found evidence of a Thomas Woodson who lived in the area, and his descendants have what the foundation describes as an "enduring oral history" of their ties to Jefferson and Hemings. DNA testing of a Woodson family member in 1998 ruled out a genetic tie to Jefferson.

"As to myself, I was named Madison by the wife of James Madison, who was afterwards president of the United States," Hemings said in 1873. "Mrs. Madison happened to be at Monticello at the time of my birth and begged the privilege of naming me, promising my mother a fine present for the honor. She consented, and Mrs. Madison dubbed me by the name I now acknowledge, but like many promises of white folks to the slaves, she never gave my mother anything."

Jefferson's supporters and some historians have attacked Madison Hemings' account, saying he was manipulated by an abolitionist writer. However, they ignore or downplay the corroboration provided by another former slave, Israel Jefferson, who had access to Monticello's living quarters, Gordon-Reed said. Also, Gordon-Reed said events at Monticello support Madison Hemings' claim about an extraordinary promise Jefferson made to his mother.

Madison Hemings said his mother at first refused to leave France, where she would have been a free woman, and returned to Monticello only after Jefferson agreed to release all of her children when they turned 21.

In 1822, 23-year-old Beverley Hemings ran away from Monticello, and Jefferson made no attempt to have him returned. The same year, after turning 21, Harriet Hemings was given $50 and put on a stagecoach to Philadelphia by Jefferson's overseer. In his will, Jefferson freed Sally Hemings' remaining children, Eston and Madison.

"Jefferson," the foundation noted in its report, "gave freedom to no other nuclear slave family."

The Hemings story has been denied for so long, Fisher said, that her descendants see a need to "speak people back into existence."

At Monticello now, guides tell the Hemings story to the half-million people who tour the estate each year, said John Rudder, associate curator for interpretation.

Because of the DNA evidence, World Book Encyclopedia mentioned Hemings for the first time in its 1999 edition, spokesman Mike Weinstein said.

Monticello Association -- the descendants of Jefferson's daughters Martha and Mary -- for the last couple of years has invited Hemings descendants to family reunions.

Fisher said she's honored to be descended from a great man. She doesn't think Jefferson a hypocrite for seeking his own freedom from tyranny while holding others in slavery, saying he was a product of his era.

With the height and freckles, Fisher may have inherited Jefferson's zeal for public service. She works with abused and neglected kids, some of whom, she said sadly, don't know the identity of their grandparents.

Unlike Jefferson's, Fisher's involvement in politics was brief and less than satisfying. She won a seat on the Democratic State Committee and served one term in the early 1980s. The highlight, so to speak, was a committee meeting in Harrisburg.

"I stood up and said three lines. That was my career," she said.

The Thomas Jefferson foundation says it remains open to new evidence that pushes the Jefferson-Hemings story in one direction or another.

In Fisher's view, it's all so simple. Human nature, unfettered by slavery's chains, ran its course.

"Why is it so impossible?" Fisher said. "It's a man and a woman."

This story is one of many that will appear in the Post-Gazette's daily and suburban editions in commemoration of Black History Month in February.



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