Hear the Stories

“You Don’t Know Until You Make Some Connection”

Ronald Smith: I really didn’t find out until two years ago that I was related to the” Thomas C. Woodson. …
“You Don’t Know Until You Make Some Connection”

Ronald Smith talks about discovering his Woodson ancestry.

Ronald Smith: I really didn’t find out until two years ago that I was related to “the” Thomas C. Woodson.  As indicated before, it was through the Ebony Magazine that I finally became aware that we were talking about the same people.  I wasn’t aware until I actually made the phone call because a lot of names are similar and you don’t know if you’re talking about son or master, or slave or master.  You just don’t know until you make some connection.  It wasn’t until I finally talked to James Wiley after the search for his telephone number and called him to ask Thomas C. Woodson’s wife and daughter’s name that I really made the connection that we were talking about the same person.

Themes: Jefferson Descent

“Auntie Called Them Hemmings Eyes”

My first recollection of hearing about Betsy Hemmings, my great-great-grandmother, occurred when I was two years old. This memory of…
“Auntie Called Them Hemmings Eyes”

Edna Jacques describes early memories of learning about her Hemmings ancestors.

My first recollection of hearing about Betsy Hemmings, my great-great-grandmother, occurred when I was two years old. This memory of her is especially clear because it is forever associated with orange ice cream.

It was August 1938, and my parents and I were in Virginia to visit my great-aunt Olive (Auntie) Rebecca Bolling and attend a homecoming church service, at the Hemmings and Bolling church. Ninety-one year old Auntie still spent her summers at the family’s 1200 acre farm, which I was visiting for the first time. Although I had been told about the farm, city life did not prepare me for the new experiences that awaited me. During that visit, I touched pigs, horses, and bird dogs; saw a cow milked; rode on a horse; picked pears from the tree; tried to play the organ; and ran merrily through the fields.

One afternoon during that visit, Auntie gave me orange ice cream, which delighted me. Immediately, I asked my parents why we didn’t have orange ice cream at home. Auntie explained that perhaps the people there didn’t have the recipe, since it was very old, coming from Grandmother Bettie’s grandmother. While the ice cream was discussed, I don’t recall any mention of Betsy or Monticello. Later I would learn that Grandmother Bettie’s grandmother’s name was Betsy Hemmings and that she brought the recipe for orange ice cream from Monticello.

Children have selective memories, and I remembered that Grandmother Bettie was mentioned when the ice cream was discussed. I probably focused on her name because she had recently become a lovely vision for me. Earlier in the week, I had been taken to the Bolling cemetery and shown the graves of my ancestors, including that of Grandmother Bettie. At her grave, she was described to me as being very beautiful with long straight white hair that hung to her waist, which she wore tied back. I was also told that she rode a white horse and that Daddy’s eyes were the same color as hers – an unusual gray with a hint of blue. Auntie called them Hemmings eyes, and on that same trip, I noticed that several of my Hemmings cousins had eyes similar to Daddy’s.

Grandmother Bettie was a daughter of Betsy Hemmings’s daughter Frances. As was often the case with entwined black and white plantation families, their children had the same names. Maria Jefferson and John Wayles Eppes named their son Francis. Therefore, it was not surprising that Betsy Hemmings and John Wayles Eppes named their daughter Frances, an Eppes name, one not traditionally used by the Hemings family. (Edna Bolling Jacques, “The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia”; for entire account, see http://www.buckinghamhemmings.com/)

Themes: Oral History Transmission

“After Years Of Silence”

We Couldn’t SayDown in the country, on a small mound Sat a small brick house, down from the town. The…
“After Years Of Silence”

Mary Kearney wrote a poem as a tribute to all descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

We Couldn’t Say

Down in the country, on a small mound

Sat a small brick house, down from the town.

The birds sang songs that all birds knew,

Flying and chirping in the late spring hue.

The children all loved this place in the hills,

Working and playing and looking for thrills.

Some folks say this family was great;

There were only a few that showed their hate.

Some others that you thought would never be a friend

Named their children after this famous man’s kin.

But one winter day our father did show

A small brown album with relatives aglow.

“These are your ancestors,” he said to us.

We were shocked and amazed but warned not to make a fuss.

After years of silence, as the world can see,

This famous man was kin to me.

(published in Timeless Voices, a poetry anthology of the International Library of Poetry)

Themes: Hemings-Jefferson Relationship, Jefferson Descent

“My Father Made An Agreement”

Born and reared as free, not knowing that I was a slave, then suddenly, at the death of Jefferson, put…
“My Father Made An Agreement”

Peter Fossett relates his struggles to escape slavery and join his family in Ohio.

“Born and reared as free, not knowing that I was a slave, then suddenly, at the death of Jefferson, put upon an auction block and sold to strangers.  I then commenced an eventful life.  I was sold to Col. John R. Jones.  My father was freed by the Legislature of Virginia.  At the request of Mr. Jefferson, my father made an agreement with Mr. Jones that when he was able to raise the amount that Col. Jones paid for me he would give me back to my father, and he also promised to let me learn the blacksmith trade with my father as soon as I was old enough.  My father then made a bargain with two sons of Col. Jones–William Jones and James Lawrence Jones–to teach me.  They attended the University of Virginia….

Col. Jones, when he bought me, promised my father to let him have me when he could raise the money, but in 1833 he refused to let him have me on any conditions.  Mrs. Jones declared that she would sooner part with one of her own children….
 

My parents were here in Ohio and I wanted to be with them and be free, so I resolved to get free or die in the attempt.  I started the second time, was caught, handcuffed, and taken back and carried to Richmond and put in jail.  For the second time I was put up on the auction block and sold like a horse.  But friends from among my master’s best friends bought me in and sent me to my father in Cincinnati, and I am here to-day.” (Peter Fossett, New York World, 30 Jan. 1898)

 Excerpts:  Ebony, Nov. 1954.

Themes: Family, Slavery