The descendants of Thomas and Jemima Woodson have been an important part of the Getting Word project because of an enduring family tradition that links them to Monticello. According to their family history, passed down since the nineteenth century through a number of different branches, Thomas Woodson was the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. While descent from Jefferson is not supported by genetic testing and a documented connection to Monticello has yet to be found, the Woodsons and the Getting Word project continue to pursue research to learn about this family and its history.

Thomas and Jemima Woodson left western Virginia for Ohio in about 1821. In Chillicothe they helped to found a church and in 1829 they founded a thriving farming community in Jackson County. Their entire family was engaged in assisting fugitive slaves and their work in the Underground Railroad led to the death of two of their sons. The family is noted for exceptional leadership in the fields of religion and education. Of Thomas and Jemima Woodson’s eleven children, five were teachers and three were ministers. Lewis Woodson was a religious and educational leader who espoused separate black communities like the one founded by his parents. His powerful newspaper writings led one historian to call him the “Father of Black Nationalism.”

Another notable individual in the second Woodson generation was Sarah Woodson Early, who graduated from Oberlin College and taught at Wilberforce University, the first African American woman on a college faculty. Woodson descendants in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries include prominent figures in the fields of education, religion, business, law, and the military.

Lewis Woodson
Sarah Woodson Early
Lt. (later Col.) James T. Wiley, Tuskegee airman and winner of the Air Medal in World War II

Family Stories

“The Women Were Ready”

In the early days of the [AME] Church when its ministers were illiterate and humble, and her struggles with poverty…
“The Women Were Ready”

Sarah Woodson Early speaks in 1893 about the importance of women in the church.

“In the early days of the [AME] Church when its ministers were illiterate and humble, and her struggles with poverty and proscriptions were long and severe, and when it required perseverance, and patience, and fortitude, and foresight, and labor, the women were ready, with their time, their talent, their influence and their money, to dedicate all to the upbuilding of the Church.  No class of persons did more to solicit and bring in the people than they.  They raised money to build churches and to support the ministers. They assisted in the prayer-meetings and class-meetings and Sabbath-schools, and taught there to love the ordinances of the Church and to respect the ministry.  Where there were no churches built they opened their doors for public worship and gladly received the care-worn and weary travelling preachers into their families and provided bountifully for their necessities. They were not only zealous in labors, but were talented in speech.  Some were gifted in prayer; so much so that persons were often convinced by hearing them pray, and were led to God and soundly converted and became useful members of the Church.” (Sarah Woodson Early, from speech given at Chicago World’s Fair, 1893)

“An Act Of Separation”

...When you asserted that the whole history of the past was in favor of contact,” as being the most powerful…
“An Act Of Separation”

Lewis Woodson uses the Declaration of Independence in his argument for separate black settlements.

…When you asserted that the whole history of the past was in favor of “contact,” as being the most powerful means of destroying antipathies, the history of our own country must have entirely escaped your memory.  The very act which gave it political existence, was an act of separation.  Is the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, therefore, a “weak and foolish” document, and were its framers “weak and foolish” men?  Have you forgotten the history of the separation of the Friends, the Methodists, and even the Presbyterians?  Of the utility of these several separations I do not now pretend to speak.  My object in referring to them is, to show that other men than me, or old father Abraham, have been “weak and foolish” enough to resort to separation, and the formation of societies of their own, as a means of curing existing antipathies.

The principle which I have endeavored to maintain in my three preceding letters on separate settlements is this, that it is right, and in accordance with the mind of God, for men whose condition has been rendered unhappy in one place, to better it if they can, by removing to another; and that the manner, time, and place of such removal, should be exclusively matters of their own choice.  And through what kind of glasses you were looking, Mr. Editor, when this simple principle appeared to you like “colonization magnified,” I am at a loss to know.  Those which I use are a plain pair of Parisian manufacture;–and when I look at it through them, it has no such appearance.  Purchasing contiguous tracts of land from the Congress of our native country, and settling upon them, so as to have society, churches, and schools of our own, without being subject to the humiliation of begging them from others, looks very much like being exiled to the cheerless coast of Africa, don’t it?  Surely your readers will be able to distinguish the difference….

But I can assure you that in the West it [issue of separate black settlements] is not merely a matter of theory; it has long since been reduced to practice.  My father now resides, and has been for the last eight years residing in such a settlement, in Jackson county, Ohio.  The settlement is highly prosperous and happy.  They have a church, day and Sabbath school of their own.  The people of this settlement cut their own harvests, roll their own logs, and raise their own houses, just as well as though they had been assisted by white friends.  They find just as ready and as high market for their grain and cattle, as their white neighbors.  They take the newspapers and read many useful books, and are making as rapid advancement in intelligence and refinement as any people in the country generally do.  And when they travel out of their settlement, no colored people, let them reside where or among whom they may, are more respected, or treated with greater deference than they are….” (“Augustine” [Lewis Woodson] to editor, 13 July 1838, in Colored American, 28 July 1838)

“This Is Something Very Important”

Ronald Smith:  The stories that you always get, you don’t really hear about.  Now if you look at what my…
“This Is Something Very Important”

After his father’s death, Ronald Smith found an ancestry chart among his possessions.

Ronald Smith:  The stories that you always get, you don’t really hear about.  Now if you look at what my grandmother actually put down as Thomas C. Woodson’s father, you won’t see Thomas Jefferson.  What you’ll see, you’ll see the name of Thomas Woodson as being Thomas C. Woodson’s father and his mother being a slave woman. That’s all she put down.

See but there were so many taboos.  You didn’t speak about certain things.  And I don’t know, she said Thomas C. Woodson had a father by the name of Thomas Woodson and a slave woman.  That was it that my father put down in the 1930’s. And that was a little piece of paper that I went from in order to try and pick up some things that (unclear) true.

Dianne Swann-Wright:   I guess what I’d like to do is to ask you to really think about what it was that your grandmother said to you.

RS: She didn’t say this to me.  She said it to my father.

DSW: Okay, well then, tell me about that and tell me what your father said to you.

RS: Now listen.  My father really never said anything to me about this stuff.  The only reason why I knew, I came across this, I knew he had it and when he passed away in ‘72, I said this is something very important, we should do something about it.  He had drawn it up for some reason or another for a brother who died,  I didn’t give you the name, had passed away in 1944.  It was Karl Franklin Smith, Jr.  He had drawn this thing up in the 1930’s for some reason or the other.  But Karl Franklin Jr. died in 1942 and I don’t know why he drew it up and I just happened to see the thing and I used it.  So it wasn’t, it’s nothing that I ever really spoke to him about or to his mother about.  So I really don’t know why he did it.  I really would like to know why he would do it back then, he would have done something like that, because you didn’t talk about genealogies then, or a lot of people didn’t know, so you really didn’t know so, an d there’s a lot of other things that were in there that I wish I had known about. 

“Let Us Provide To Adorn Their Minds”

Advantages are opening for educational purposes among us, but we must prepare our minds to avail ourselves of these advantages;…
“Let Us Provide To Adorn Their Minds”

Lewis Woodson writes about the importance of education.

Advantages are opening for educational purposes among us, but we must prepare our minds to avail ourselves of these advantages; and if we cannot adorn our children’s bodies with costly attire, let us provide to adorn their minds with that jewel that will elevate, ennoble, and rescue the bodies of our long injured race from the shackles of bondage, and their minds from the trammels of ignorance and vice.  (Lewis Woodson, 1856, in History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 404)

“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)

“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.