Stories

The participants in the Getting Word project tell stories that show the skills, values, and powerful bonds of family that have been passed down over more than seven generations.

“Disfranchisement Because Of Sex … Handicaps Progress”

I wonder if anybody in all this great world ever thought to consider man’s rights as an individual, by his…
“Disfranchisement Because Of Sex … Handicaps Progress”

Coralie Cook publishes “Votes for Mothers” in the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1915.

“I wonder if anybody in all this great world ever thought to consider man’s rights as an individual, by his status as a father? yet you ask me to say something about ‘Votes for Mothers,’ as if mothers were a separate and peculiar people.  After all, I think you are not so far wrong.  Mothers are different, or ought to be different, from other folk.  The woman who smilingly goes out, willing to meet the Death Angel, that a child may be born, comes back from that journey, not only the mother of her own adored babe, but a near-mother to all other children.  As she serves that little one, there grows within her a passion to serve humanity; not race, not class, not sex, but God’s creatures as he has sent them to earth.

It is not strange that enlightened womanhood has so far broken its chains as to be able to know that to perform such service, woman should help both to make and to administer the laws under which she lives, should feel responsible for the conduct of educational systems, charitable and correctional institutions, public sanitation and municipal ordinances in general.  Who should be more competent to control the presence of bar rooms and ‘red-light districts’ than mothers whose sons they are meant to lure to degradation and death?  Who knows better than the girl’s mother at what age the girl may legally barter her own body?  Surely not the men who have put upon our statute books, 16, 14, 12, aye be it to their eternal shame, even 10 and 8 years, as ‘the age of consent!’

If men could choose their own mothers, would they choose free women or bondwomen?  Disfranchisement because of sex is curiously like disfranchisement because of color.  It cripples the individual, it handicaps progress, it sets a limitation upon mental and spiritual development.  I grow in breadth, in vision, in the power to do, just in proportion as I use the capacities with which Nature, the All-Mother, has endowed me.  I transmit to the child who is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh and thought of my thought; somewhat of my own power or weakness.  Is not the voice which is crying out for ‘Votes for Mothers’ the Spirit of the Age crying out for the Rights of Children?”  (The Crisis, 10, August 1915)

Themes: Education, Struggle for Equality

“I Have Been Almost Completely Exhausted”

HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.                  Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I…
“I Have Been Almost Completely Exhausted”

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.

Yours &c.                       

J. W. JEFFERSON.” (Weekly Wisconsin Patriot, 13 June 1863)

Themes: Civil War

“Sarah Jane Was Very Firm In Her Demands”

The rail road hands returning with so much money plays the wild with us; Sarah Jane is dissatisfied with Harriets…
“Sarah Jane Was Very Firm In Her Demands”

In 1871 George Hughes and his wife ask for higher wages from the Randolphs.

“The rail road hands returning with so much money plays the wild with us; Sarah Jane is dissatisfied with Harriets [daughter Harriet Hughes] wages ($4) & was very firm in her demands for more yesterday morn: & last night, George came in & told his master Lewis had engaged to give him $130. certain, & 30. more if he pleased him, but that he could’nt stay for $160 this year, whereupon the Old Gent [Thomas J. Randolph] rose in his wrath, & told him if he could do better to go elsewhere, that he would not give him $130. & he might take his family & move off; they [finally] took time to think of it but your father has heard of a first rate manager in Buckingham, that Tom thinks he may get, & he is pretty much determined to try him.  I mean, if possible, to keep quiet – do’nt begin to know what I shall do without Sarah Jane but try to have faith that Providence will provide.” (Jane N. Randolph, Edgehill, to Ellen Randolph Harrison, 6 Jan. 1871, University of Virginia Library: 1397)

“The News Flew Like Wildfire”

Wormley, the aged slave already referred to in this work, was between nine and ten years old when Mr. Jefferson…
“The News Flew Like Wildfire”

In 1851, Wormley Hughes remembers Jefferson’s return to Monticello from France sixty years earlier.

“Wormley, the aged slave already referred to in this work, was between nine and ten years old when Mr. Jefferson returned from France [in 1789], and when we talked with him in 1851, had a distinct recollection of the reception scene described above, and he gave us, partly from recollection and partly from the statements of his fellows, several minor touches of the story.

Two or three days before reaching home, Mr. Jefferson had sent an express directing his overseer to have his house made ready for his reception by a specified day.  The overseer mentioned this, and the news flew like wildfire over the different farms which it is customary to mention collectively as Monticello.  The slaves could hardly attend to their work.  They asked leave to make his return a holiday and of course received permission.  Bright and early were all up on the appointed day, washed clean of the stains of labor, and attired in their ‘Sunday best.’  They first determined to receive him at the foot of the mountain; and the women and children refusing to be left behind, down they marched in a body.  Never dragged on hours so slowly!  Finally, the men began to straggle onward–and the swarm did not settle again until they reached the confines of the estate, perhaps two miles from the house.  By and by a carriage and four horses was seen rapidly approaching. The negroes raised a shout.  The postillions plied their whips, and in a moment more, the carriage was in their midst.  Martha’s description of what ensued is sufficiently accurate until the summit of the notch between Monticello and Carter’s Mountain was attained.  She says, the carriage was almost drawn by hand.  We consider old Wormley’s authority the best on this point!  He pointed out the very spot soon after the carriage had turned off from the highway, when in spite of the entreaties and commands (not however, we imagine, very sternly uttered!) of the ‘old master,’ the horses were detached and the shouting crowd pushed and dragged the heavy vehicle at no snail’s pace up the further ascent, until it reached the lawn in front of the house.”  (Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, 1865, 1: 552-553)

“The Great Changes Which Time Brings About”

When I came to Cincinnati, I was employed as a waiter in a private house, at ten dollars a month…
“The Great Changes Which Time Brings About”

Israel Jefferson describes his work in Ohio and his visit to Thomas Jefferson’s grandson after the Civil War.

“When I came to Cincinnati, I was employed as a waiter in a private house, at ten dollars a month for the first month.  From that time on I received $20, till I went on board a steamboat, where I got higher wages still.  In time, I found myself in receipt of $50 per month, regularly, and sometimes even more.  I resided in Cincinnati about fourteen years, and from thence came on to the farm I am now on, in Pebble township, on Brushy Fork of Pee Pee creek.  Have been here about sixteen years.

“Since my residence in Ohio I have several times visited Monticello.  My last visit was in the fall of 1866.  Near there I found the same Jefferson Randolph, whose service as administrator I left more than forty years ago, at Monticello.  He had grown old, and was outwardly surrounded by the evidences of former ease and opulence gone to decay.  He was in poverty.  He had lost, he told me, $80,000 in money by joining the South in rebellion against the government.  Except his real estate, the rebellion stripped him of everything, save one old, blind mule.  He said that if he had taken the advice of his sister, Mrs. Cooleridge [Ellen Coolidge], gone to New York, and remained there during the war, he could have saved the bulk of his property.  But he was a rebel at heart, and chose to go with his people.  Consequently, he was served as others had been—he had lost all his servants and nearly all his personal property of every kind.  I went back to Virginia to find the proud and haughty Randolph in poverty, at Edge Hill, within four miles of Monticello, where he was bred and born.  Indeed, I then realized, more than ever before, the great changes which time brings about in the affairs and circumstances of life.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)

Themes: Civil War, Monticello, Ohio

“I Knew He Was A Bell Ringer”

Yes, I knew he was a bell ringer, and I knew that he carried these, oh that's coming back to…
“I Knew He Was A Bell Ringer”

Ruth Hunt remembers what she heard about her great-grandfather Henry Martin.

“Yes, I knew he was a bell ringer, and I knew that he carried these, oh that’s coming back to me now. I remember Daddy talking about these buckets of coal that he carried to fire, whatever he had to fire. He was very good at ringing the bells without a time piece. I remember Daddy saying that. And I remember him saying he was always there, you know like he wasn’t, he was on time and he wasn’t absent, that sort of thing. And I know my Grandmother Patsy Martin, great‑grandmother, was a very religious person. The two of them seemed to have been religious people from what I recall. And my Grandmother Patsy would not allow anybody to come in her house with a hat on. My father told me about a man who came to her door, I don’t know whether it was insurance or what he was, but she invited him to take his hat off and the way she invited him was like, this was the impression I got, no nonsense kind of thing.”

Themes: Education, Family, Slavery

“The American Idea Of Fair Play”

In the south, the policy of white toward Negro is one of suppression and antagonism.  Once the issue of social…
“The American Idea Of Fair Play”

In 1922, Frederick Roberts warns of the growing threat to the ideals of the Founders.

In the south, the policy of white toward Negro is one of suppression and antagonism.  Once the issue of social equality is raised, the whole American idea of fair play is laid aside in favor of mob force and lynching bees.  The result is that our national tranquility is shaken to the roots, and the very life of American ideals is threatened.

In the west, on the other hand, the athletic ideal governs the relation between the races.  Here the American idea of fair play prevails.  The race issue is never present in politics, but rather Negro and Caucasian vote on all questions from a moral and purely objective viewpoint.

The problem of racial disorder in the south is not a Negro problem, but a purely American one.  If in one corner of the land law and order may be set aside to favor the passions of a group, why is it not feasible to do the same thing in other parts of the country?  Thus the very existence of the principles, upon which our nation was founded are at stake.   (San Jose Evening News, 2 Sep. 1922)

Themes: Racial Prejudice, Struggle for Equality

“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

“We Should Be Treated As Americans”

After a while he became interested in politics.  He ran for the Board of Education once and didn’t win.  In…
“We Should Be Treated As Americans”

Pearl Roberts speaks of her husband’s political views and career.

After a while he became interested in politics.  He ran for the Board of Education once and didn’t win.  In 1918, he ran for Assemblyman and people thought he was crazy, but he was elected.  He was there for 16 years, four terms.  He was the first black elected to an official position in the state of California.  He was the first black elected to a state office west of the Mississippi…. 

He didn’t like the word “Negro.”  He used the term “Americans of African descent.”  He wanted to stress the fact that we were Americans and should be treated as Americans.  Whereas most newspapers would say, “another Negro lynched,” his newspaper would say, “another American lynched.”  (Pearl Roberts typescript autobiography, Roberts Collection, African American Museum and Library at Oakland)

Themes: Education, Military and Civil Service, Racial Prejudice, Struggle for Equality

“The Answers Are Found In Stories”

…. After Maria Jefferson Eppes’s death in 1804, John Wayles Eppes moved to his new plantation Millbrook, located in Buckingham…
“The Answers Are Found In Stories”

Edna Jacques writes about her ancestor Betsy Hemmings and the family oral history.

…. After Maria Jefferson Eppes’s death in 1804, John Wayles Eppes moved to his new plantation Millbrook, located in Buckingham County, accompanied by his young son Francis and Betsy Hemmings. Millbrook became Betsy’s permanent home and eventually her final resting-place.

It is this final resting-place that sparks the public interest in Betsy Hemmings. Why is Betsy Hemmings’s grave in the Eppes family cemetery, as opposed to the Millbrook slave cemetery, which was the custom in Buckingham County? Why is Betsy’s tombstone so elaborate, when at best most slave graves had fieldstones as markers, or none at all? How did her grave survive the racist times when blacks were brutalized and their property destroyed? Why was this seemingly insignificant Hemings slave honored with such a grave, while her famous Aunt Sally, her wealthy mother Mary, and her talented Uncle John lie in unmarked graves?

The answers to these questions are found in stories that have been passed down for generations by descendants of the Hemmings and Eppes families; former slaves from Millbrook and Chellowe plantations; my great-aunt Olive Rebecca Bolling (1847-1953); and descendants of people who lived in the vicinity of Millbrook. Probably additional information on Betsy’s life at Millbrook existed, but was lost in two Buckingham fires. In 1866, the plantation house at Millbrook was destroyed by fire, supposedly by whites angered because blacks occupied the house. Rumors have persisted that the arsonists were members of a prominent old Virginia family with blood ties to the Eppeses and Randolphs. In 1869, Buckingham County Courthouse, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1821, also burned, resulting in a loss of records.

Central to any discussion of Betsy Hemmings is the issue of paternity, hers and that of her children. Many of Betsy’s descendants have remained in Buckingham County since her lifetime, passing down their oral history from generation to generation. That oral history says that Betsy Hemmings was a daughter of Thomas Jefferson and mistress of John Wayles Eppes: Betsy’s lifestyle at Millbrook and the location of her elaborate grave corroborate her descendants oral history.

Until recent times, most historians have ignored or denied the existence of interracial plantation families. But as circumstantial evidence from the antebellum period is reevaluated and more credence given to oral history, the complexity of race relations on the plantation becomes evident. For instance, there were some slave and master families who maintained intimate relationships with each other, often spanning generations. In some of these families, first cousin marriages were common among the whites, while intimate relationships between the white and black family members were as close, if not closer. Nothing about life on the plantations should come as a surprise, since the plantations were essentially fiefdoms. Although laws governing behavior existed, planters were able to live as they pleased, unless their activities became a public issue.


Betsy Hemmings was a product of entwined black and white plantation families. Her grandmother, Betty Hemings, was owned by Francis Eppes IV, paternal grandfather of John Wayles Eppes and maternal grandfather of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Then, as part of a dowry, Betty Hemings became the property of John Wayles, father of Martha Jefferson and John Wayles Eppes’s mother, Elizabeth. After John Wayles’s third and last wife died, Betty Hemings became his mistress. Upon her father’s death, Martha Jefferson inherited the entire Hemings family, which she brought to Monticello, but prevailing law dictated that they become the property of her husband Thomas Jefferson. The newly arrived Hemings family rapidly assumed the key household positions at Monticello, and one explanation for their ascent is that Martha Jefferson and Betty Hemings had a close relationship…. (Edna Bolling Jacques, “The Hemmings Family in Buckingham County, Virginia”; for entire account, see http://www.buckinghamhemmings.com/)

Themes: Family