Because of a momentous decision made in 1850, the lives of Eston Hemings Jefferson’s descendants differed radically from those of his brother Madison, exemplifying the striking gap in opportunities for blacks and whites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For thirty years the course of the brothers’ lives proceeded in unison. Both became free in 1827, according to the terms of Jefferson’s will. They left Monticello with their mother, Sally Hemings, to live in the town of Charlottesville, where they purchased a lot and built a brick house. The brothers were both skilled woodworkers and both married free women of color. In the late 1830s, after their mother’s death, Madison and Eston Hemings and their families left Virginia for the same part of southern Ohio. Thereafter, their paths diverged.
While Madison Hemings chose to live in a rural community, Eston and Julia Isaacs Hemings settled in the town of Chillicothe. Eston Hemings led a dance band that was popular throughout southern Ohio. As one contemporary noted, “his personal appearance and gentlemanly manners attracted everybody’s attention to him.” But Ohio’s Black Laws denied him the vote and the right to hold office, and his children were excluded from public schools. At the moment when their children, John Wayles, Anna, and Beverly were entering their teenage years, Eston and Julia Hemings severed their ties with their African American past and left Ohio for a place where no one knew of their connection to slavery.
When they settled in Madison, Wisconsin, they changed their surname (to Jefferson) and their race, passing permanently into the white world. The Jefferson sons were popular figures in the state capital, first in the hotel trade and later in business and battle. In the Civil War, John Wayles Jefferson was chosen major in the 8th Wisconsin infantry regiment and rose to the rank of colonel after more than three years of long marches and bruising combat in the Mississippi Valley campaign. His brother, Beverly, owned the principal carriage and omnibus firm in Madison.
Beverly Jefferson’s sons benefited from the educational and professional advantages of the transition to whiteness. Several attended the University of Wisconsin; one became an attorney, another a doctor. Yet there was the constant strain of hiding their African American ancestry. The story of descent from Thomas Jefferson, which had been quietly preserved in their family, had to be changed, since he had no legitimate sons. Eston Jefferson’s descendants in the twentieth century decided to alter their family history. Descendants today did not learn of their African American heritage until the 1970s. Julia Jefferson Westerinen considered her ancestor’s motivations for passing: “I imagine he looked at his children, saw that they were intelligent, they were being educated, they should have the opportunities that the white people did.”
In 1863 Lt. Col. John Wayles Jefferson writes his brother Beverly Jefferson during the siege of Vicksburg.
“HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.
Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I cannot write much, as I have no time or spirits. Since the 2nd of May up to yesterday (excepting two days I was in Jackson, Miss.,) I have been continually on the March and fighting the rebels. I had not until to-day changed my clothes or had a decent meal for nineteen days. We marched around Vicksburg on the Louisiana side 90 miles, crossed the river at Grand Gulf, marched about 170 miles in a roundabout way to Jackson, Miss. Our brigade charged the rebel works at Jackson, and were the first troops in the town. Four days before this we met the rebels at Mississippi Springs, and had a hard skirmish but whipped them (I am speaking about our regiment and our brigade); we have had a number of other battles. At Jackson Major General Sherman made me Provost Marshal of the town, had also charge of all the prisoners and was ordered to destroy five million dollars worth of rebel property. We are now in the rear of Vicksburg, and in sight of the city. We have been fighting for four days, and have them surrounded. Their entrenchments and breastworks are awful to attack. Their works were stormed to-day by part of our army, and to-morrow all the army will attack the works at 9 a. m. We are losing a great many men, and there will be an awful slaughter to-morrow. We have captured 81 cannon, 10,000 stands of small arms at the different battles (not Vicksburg). I was ordered to turn over 5,500 prisoners in my charge to-day, and that is why I am here. Will return to my regiment in one hour which is only five miles distant. We just lived on what we could pick up during the past three weeks, and I have been almost completely exhausted from hunger, loss of sleep and fatigue. Vicksburg will be ours in a day or two, but it has and will cost as many thousand lives.
I write this hoping you may get it in season.
J. W. JEFFERSON.” (Weekly Wisconsin Patriot, 13 June 1863)
Julia Jefferson in 1877 thanks her son John Wayles Jefferson for a gift of money and tells him about her singing bird and a snowstorm.
My dear precious son:
I am glad to inform you that your letter with Post Office order came to me on the evening of the same day I wrote to you that I had not received it. I, as usual, return to you my heartfelt thanks for your kindness. I wish I could give you something better. I hope you will take the will for the deed. God grant you may never want or even miss what you are so good as to give me. I am satisfied and grateful for it. I believe I am now more resigned to what seems to be my lot than ever before. At times, I am quite cheerful, at other times old and new troubles come back to me, but I know now better what to do with them than ever before. I believe God helps me to cast my burdens on Him.
I believe I wrote to you about the snow and cold weather, but today and last night a snow storm has set in that is far in advance of any thing of the kind for severity. It is now 10 o’clock at night and it is blowing and snowing as hard as ever. The drifts in some places are four and five feet high. At noon today the boys went out to remove some of the snow so we could get out, but now it is as bad if not worse than before. It is about knee deep on a level. While it lasts, we shall be warm inside for every hole is stopped and we are banked up in some places above the windows. I don’t know how it will be by morning. Probably we shall have to be dug out.
I am glad to tell you that the “Colonel” commenced singing on the 27th of Dec. just in low sad notes. He continued in this way for several successive days, when all at once he broke out with the finest singing I ever heard from the bird kind, and so he has kept on ever since. I understand him now when he wants anything. He doesn’t like the lamp to shine in on him, and he gives an unusual cry. I get up and cover his cage and he is perfectly quiet. I attend to him altogether myself and I believe he thinks as much of me as I do of him. The ceiling is so low that I can’t hang him up, so he has been kept all the time on a stand by the window and he seems to feel perfectly at home there.
It is now much later than I thought it was, and must close, wishing my dear son good night and praying the good God to bless him. (Julia Jefferson to John Wayles Jefferson, 15 Jan. 1877, courtesy of Julia Jefferson Westerinen)
Lt. Col. John Wayles Jefferson reports the long-awaited surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.
“Vicksburg is ours. Glory! Glory! Glory! I have just returned from the city and actually saw the heads, hides and entrails of mules which the rebels have been subsisting on for days. We all feel so joyful today. Even the poor sickly soldiers in the hospitals seem to revive, and look well again. Congress, at its next session, must be petitioned to add 24 hours to the 4th of July, making it 48 hours long, because hereafter we cannot possibly get done celebrating the day in 24 hours.” (Wisconsin State Journal, July 1863)
A Chillicothe resident remembers Eston Hemings and his band.
I wonder if the music is as good now as it used to be? I was at the great Charity Ball – as a looker on – given in this city a few weeks ago, where the music was furnished by the celebrated Barracks Band, but somehow or other it didn’t affect me at all like Heming’s used to at the balls we are speaking of. When he with his violin, Graham Bell with his clarionet and Wambaw with the bass viol cut loose, there was only one thing to do, and that was – dance. When they struck up ‘Money Musk’, or ‘Wesson’s Slaughter House,’ he was a chump indeed who could sit by and look on without clinching onto a pretty girl and joining the merry throng. And there was no chance for a mistake in the girl, either, for they were all pretty – at least they looked so then. Why is it that in the matter of looks the girls of to-day compare so unfavorable with the ones of that day? Do spectacles make the difference? Eston Hemings, the Ben Hunter of that day, was a fine looking man, very slightly colored, of large size and said to have been a natural son of Thomas Jefferson, but I never went very much on that story, although I have seen a life of Jefferson in which the name of Hemings is given as one of the household, and I have no doubt that his mother was a slave of Mr. Jefferson’s. He built, I think, and lived in the brick house on Paint street occupied a few years ago by Mr. William Stanly. His wife was a fine looking woman and either of them would have had little difficulty in passing as white people, but a nigger was a nigger in those days and that settled it. He was in demand in all the neighboring towns in the winter season, and Circleville, Lancaster, Portsmouth and Columbus frequently sought his services. When he left Chillicothe it was for the West, and I recollect hearing that one of his sons was at one time a member of the Legislature of a western state. (Angus Waddle, Chillicothe Leader, 26 Jan. 1887, Beverly Gray Collection)
A few months before her death, Julia Jefferson provides for the support for her Irish servant, Margaret Bryan, and specifies the inscription for her gravestone.
My dear Son:
…. What I wanted to say, my dear son, in regard to Margaret, is that I would be glad if you would see that she does not come to want after I am gone. She has been with me off and on for a long time, and now is not young or strong enough to make her living. We have had our ups and downs. I forgive all and believe now she would do more for me than any other woman. She is not faultless; neither am I. I have always given her more comforts than I have allowed my own body. When I took B[everly]’s children, I had a bargain and have paid her, though the account stands now imperfect for want of time, which if lengthened out a little longer, I may fix it more correctly. I would like for you to let her have a sum at my decease, say $50. or more to enable her to go or stay or do what she pleases and also to allow her at least $3.00 per week as support during her life, but more if misfortune or old age overtakes her. Whatever she may desire of my few effects to furnish a room for herself she can take. The greater part of furniture belongs to Beverly. She knows which is mine. The portraits of my daughter and granddaughter are to be given Fred and Walt Pearson and anything else of my effects they may desire. The piano, being bought by their father, I give Walter. He can do what he pleases with it. My portrait is for you, yours for Beverly. Two large silver spoons, marked J.J. – one for you, the other for Beverly. The silver set is yours. Whatever either of you desire of what I call mine, take it. There may be a few gifts to some old friends of which I will tell Margaret and she can tell you or I may live to write it down; it matters not. The sale of the house will more than three times cover all debts and expense whenever you sell it. I shall endeavor to make it with as little trouble to you, my dear son, as I can. You have had your share of it. Would like a good gold ring given to each of my seven grandsons as a keepsake for me if you can do it. Lay me beside your father without pomp or show, if you deem it as a duty or something like that. Let the stone be plain like that of dear Julia’s, costing about $20.00 or $25.00, no more. Say on the arch (where it says Julia on hers) “Mother” or “Julia”, etc. (on the front side) “Wife of E. H. Jefferson, born Nov. 21, 1814 and died – -.” This is all. This has been disagreeable because I know it will make you feel sorrowful, but I could not let it go longer, seeing the uncertainty of my condition. What more can I say than God bless my save [sic] my dear son. If I live, I will write again. (Julia Jefferson to John Wayles Jefferson, 16 Nov. 1888, courtesy of Julia Westerinen)