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NewsJan 31, 2022

Reckoning with a troubling history

Author Gayle Jessup White, descendant of Thomas Jefferson and people he enslaved, discusses her family journey

Author Gayle Jessup White's video presentation in the latest virtual event of the Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University.

Never meet your heroes, especially when they’re 18th-century American presidents.

Gayle Jessup White, last night’s featured speaker in the Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University, is public relations and community engagement officer for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

“I am also the first descendant of the enslaved and the enslaver to work there and be paid for it,” she said, adding that she learned some hard though fascinating lessons about one of the most prominent founding fathers — and her own family secrets — during decades of “detective work.”

Back in her adolescence, through conversations with her older sister and other family members, the acclaimed former television journalist began the tortuous process of discovering her ancestral ties to Jefferson and some of the people he owned at his estate in Monticello and his retreat 30 miles north. Her tale of transforming family lore into solid genealogical research is outlined in her recently published book “Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant's Search for Her Family's Lasting Legacy."

The third president of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence had long been Jessup White’s favorite president because of his brilliant writing. That’s why a conversation with her significantly older sister, revealing the family connection to Jefferson, took her aback.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I’m a little Black girl growing up in Washington, D.C.; Thomas Jefferson was a white man who happened to be president of the United States.”

Photo of Gayle Jessup White with words reading "Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a descendant's search for her family's lasting legacy."
Author Gayle Jessup White was the featured speaker of the Jan. 27 Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University.

Such revelations came at a cost. At age 13, Jessup White said, “I began to lose my innocent perspective on the world,” as she realized that the man who penned that all men are created equal” actually owned slaves.

“Jefferson was horribly flawed,” Jessup White said. “I’m hurt and disillusioned by what I found out about him. He was almost a god, frankly.”

Jessup White began to put the pieces together about her family and the third president. Like Jefferson, her father, Cedric Jessup, was 6-foot-2 and had red hair and freckles, though he offered little more information about his ancestry, beyond that his mother, Eva Robinson Taylor, was from Charlottesville.

“Why didn’t he know more about his family?” Jessup White wondered, though she soon had a clue: the family had more than its share of personal tragedy. Jessup White’s grandfather, Arthur Jessup, a gunner in the Spanish-American War, died when her father was 5 years old. In addition, four of Cedric Jessup’s sisters died young of tuberculosis.

While the family history might have been raw to her father, Jessup White was impelled to go on throughout the years. She marshaled the resources she had at hand — photographs, diaries, letters and a family Bible. Later, under the tutelage of Lucia “Cinder” Stanton (author of “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”), she used Census and military records to confirm her roots to Jefferson and those he enslaved.

“Let’s make it easy,” Jessup White said. “Thomas Jefferson’s great-great-grandson was my great-grandfather.”

However, the consequences of the discovery are anything but easy, as she had to confront the reality that she and her family exist, at least in part, as a result of rape of enslaved women. Still, the sobering truth gives her strength today, Jessup White said.

“When I get tired of having to defend and explain and have people understand how Black people have been enslaved and disrespected,” Jessup White said, she realizes that “we are the sum total of those people.”

“Without us, there would have been no Monticello. There would not have been 5,000 acres of land. There would not have been a Declaration of Independence,” she said, as slave labor gave Jefferson the freedom to think and write. Yet Jefferson died in excruciating debt, a debt paid by the people he enslaved, who were auctioned off to other slave owners after his death to pay his creditors.

Though his most famous writing presented an ideal of equality, his life presented a far different story.

“People say he was a hypocrite. OK, we’ll give him that. But he was also extraordinarily irresponsible,” Jessup White said. “Let’s just see him for who he is, not just some granite figure on Mount Rushmore.”

While his profound defects of character, and the evil he and his contemporaries perpetrated on enslaved Africans, should never be whitewashed, his contributions, particularly the Declaration of Independence, should never be forgotten, Jessup White said.

“Thomas Jefferson will always be an important figure in American history,” she said. “That document inspired freedom fighters around the world. It inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. … so Jefferson cannot be dismissed.”