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Harvard Historian Clarifies Jefferson Family Tree

For The Heights

Published: Thursday, September 13, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01


Natalie Blardony / For The Heights

The Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy kicked off the 2012-2013 school year this Wednesday with a talk from scholar, author, and professor Annette Gordon-Reed. A professor of law and history at Harvard University, Gordon-Reed presented a lecture titled “Law, Culture, and Legacies of Slavery,” which was held in conjunction with the Boston College Legal History Roundtable. The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for History explored the way slavery shaped white attitudes toward blacks and vice-versa, especially in the areas of law, credibility, and family.

Drawing on her experience of researching a book on Thomas Jefferson, Gordon-Reed shared her encounter with a long-standing controversy surrounding the statesman’s possible illegitimate children with his slave, Sally Hemings. She argued that the controversy revealed reluctance by historians and scholars to trust the word of a black man over that of a white man.

 In 1873, a former slave by the name of Madison Hemings claimed to be the living son of Thomas Jefferson. His claim received brief publicity but was otherwise relegated to the dustbins of history. Throughout the years, every time the issue surfaced, it was subsequently dismissed, in part due to the testimonies of Jefferson’s legitimate grandchildren, who claimed Hemings was the son of Jefferson’s nephew. Despite mounting evidence for Hemings’ version of the story, and multiple incongruities in the grandchildren’s, this continued to be the case. Finally, DNA testing concluded that Hemings was very likely the biological son of Jefferson, and today most historians generally agree on the matter.

Gordon-Reed described the resistance she encountered as “carryover” from America’s racially segregated past. Pointing out that African-American testimony was not historically allowed in court, she argued that this reluctance to grant credibility to a black man stemmed from such disparity. “Who in their right mind,” she asked, “would ever dare to question whether Jefferson’s wife’s children actually were from Thomas Jefferson? No DNA testing to prove their lineage exists, yet it goes unquestioned and is accepted as fact.”

This, Gordon-Reed said, speaks about the lack of protection for the idea of the family unit for enslaved peoples. Family as a legal or societal construction simply did not exist for slaves. Marriage was not recognized between slaves, and families were frequently separated. Jefferson himself split 10-year-old boys from their mothers in order to sell them to other slave owners. Owner-slave relations were common, and there was no concept of “consent.” A slave was considered property, and had no legal rights or recourse.

Gordon-Reed concluded her lecture by urging those present to rethink the way they viewed credibility. By the awareness and study of history, she argued, we could understand the impact the attitudes of the past have on our own attitudes and help to “shatter stereotypes.”

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