Hemings

Edith Hern Fossett

Edith Hern Fossett was the daughter of David Hern, a enslaved carpenter, and Isabel, an enslaved domestic servant. For six years of Jefferson’s presidency, Fossett trained under the French chef at the President’s House in Washington, returning to Monticello in 1809 as chief cook. Her recipes were prized by Jefferson’s family members and Monticello visitors described the meals she prepared as “always choice” and “served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance.”

Unlike her husband, Joseph Fossett, Edith and their children were not freed in Jefferson’s will but were sold at the dispersal sale in 1827. Joseph Fossett, with the help of family members, was able to free his wife and five children in 1837, prior to their departure for Ohio; they settled in Cincinnati by 1843. Through the continuous efforts of her husband and other family members, before her death Edith Fossett was able to see most of her children thriving in Ohio. Two of them, William and Peter Fossett, became prominent caterers.

Joseph Fossett

Monticello blacksmith Joseph Fossett, freed by Jefferson in his will, had to struggle to reunite his family after they were sold at the dispersal sale in 1827. With the support of his free relatives, including his mother, Mary Hemings Bell, he had achieved the freedom of his wife, Edith Hern Fossett, and five of their ten children by 1837. They then moved to Ohio, settling in Cincinnati by 1843.In this thriving city on the dividing line between slavery and freedom, the Fossetts did not turn their backs on those still in bondage. Joseph Fossett and his sons William, Daniel, and Jesse pursued the blacksmithing trade and the whole family actively participated in helping fugitive slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. Almost all of the Fossett children reached Ohio before their parents’ deaths. It took until 1850 in the case of their son Peter Fossett, who became a renowned minister. 

Joseph and Edith Fossett’s descendants include artists, attorneys, caterers, civil servants, and musicians. In every generation Fossetts fought for freedom and equality, the most famous among them being William Monroe Trotter.

Peter Fossett

Peter Fossett, the son of Joseph Fossett and Edith Hern Fossett was sold, along with his mother and siblings, at the 1827 dispersal sale following Jefferson’s death.  When his father, who had been freed in Jefferson’s will, earned enough money to purchase him, Peter’s new owner refused to sell him. Peter Fossett twice tried to run away, without success. Finally, in 1850, he was purchased out of slavery through the efforts of his free family members.

He joined his parents and siblings in Cincinnati, where he became one of the city’s most prominent caterers, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and a renowned Baptist minister. In an interview in 1898, he spoke of his struggles to learn to read and write by stealth and how writing skills allowed him to forge free papers to help fellow slaves to escape. He and his wife, Sarah Mayrant Fossett, were active in a number of civic organizations as well as in the church they founded.

Angela Hughes Davidson

In 1996, four generations of the Hughes family of Fauquier County came to Monticello soon after learning of their descent from Rev. Robert Hughes of Union Run Baptist Church and head gardener Wormley Hughes of Monticello. The connection might have been broken because their ancestor, also Wormley Hughes (1851-1901), left Albemarle County with the Union army in the confusion at the end of the Civil War.

Like the other members of the Hughes family with whom she was interviewed in 1996, Angela Hughes Davidson only recently discovered her family’s connection to Monticello through her ancestor Wormley Hughes. Angela was born in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Howard University.

Stephen De Windt

Stephen De Windt moved with his family from the San Francisco Bay area to Pasadena when he was twelve.  He attended Pasadena City College and Arizona State University.  After a career in the airline industry, he became an actor—a “background artist”—in Hollywood.

De Windt heard a great deal about his talented great-great-aunt Pauline Powell Burns from the women in his family.  Fascinated by his family history, he made a number of donations to the collections of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.  He was not fully aware of his connection to the Fossetts of Monticello until 2006.  When he heard their story, his response was, “They stepped up to the plate.”

William Cunningham

William Cunningham, who worked for many years for the Meade Corporation, was living at the time of his interview in the house in which he was born, across the street from the house lived in by his great-grandparents Tucker and Ann-Elizabeth Isaacs.  He participated in the Getting Word project to honor his mother, Ann Elizabeth Isaacs Cunningham, who attended Boston Music School and was a church organist.  He and his wife, Mae Catherine Wingo, raised six children.  When asked how he felt about Thomas Jefferson, he replied “I would like to know more about Mary Hemings than hear all the talk about him.”

Ellen Craft Dammond

Ellen Dammond, who was a social worker and personnel supervisor, was descended from both the Fossetts of Monticello and the famous fugitive slaves William and Ellen Craft. The prominent equal rights activist William Monroe Trotter was her uncle. She felt strongly about preserving and passing on the history of the struggles for freedom and equality, and introduced a 1970s film on the Crafts. Both she and her daughter, Peggy Preacely, were active participants in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Ellen Dammond worked with Dorothy Height and Polly Cowan in the Wednesdays in Mississippi project. The 2006 Getting Word interview includes a 1995 recording of Ellen Dammond and her sister, Virginia Craft Rose, remembering their family and its history.

The William and Ellen Craft Story

Find out about the Craft ancestors, William and Ellen, an enslaved couple from Macon, Georgia, who made a daring escape to freedom.