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.

“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

“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

“I Can Confirm His Statement”

I know that it was a general statement among the older servants at Monticello, that Mr. Jefferson promised his wife,…
“I Can Confirm His Statement”

Israel Jefferson speaks of Madison Hemings as the son of Thomas Jefferson.

“I know that it was a general statement among the older servants at Monticello, that Mr. Jefferson promised his wife, on her death bed, that he would not again marry.  I also know that his servant, Sally Hemmings, (mother to my old friend and former companion at Monticello, Madison Hemmings,) was employed as his chamber-maid, and that Mr. Jefferson was on the most intimate terms with her; that, in fact, she was his concubine.  This I know from my intimacy with both parties, and when Madison Hemmings declares that he is a natural son of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and that his brothers Beverly and Eston and sister Harriet are of the same parentage, I can as conscientiously confirm his statement as any other fact which I believe from circumstances but do not positively know.

I think that Mr. Jefferson was 84 years of age when he died.  He was hardly ever sick, and till within two weeks of his death he walked erect without a staff or cane.  He moved with the seeming alertness and sprightliness of youth.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)

Themes: Hemings-Jefferson Relationship, Jefferson Descent, Monticello

“Such Is The Story That Comes Down To Me”

I never knew of but one white man who bore the name of Hemings; he was an Englishman and my…
“Such Is The Story That Comes Down To Me”

Madison Hemings speaks in 1873 of his grandmother Elizabeth Hemings.

“I never knew of but one white man who bore the name of Hemings; he was an Englishman and my greatgrandfather.  He was captain of an English trading vessel which sailed between England and Williamsburg, Va., then quite a port.  My grandmother was a fullblooded African, and possibly a native of that country.  She was the property of John Wales, a Welchman [incorrect; she then belonged to the Eppes family].  Capt. Hemings happened to be in the port of Williamsburg at the time my grandmother was born, and acknowledging her fatherhood he tried to purchase her of Mr. Wales, who would not part with the child, though he was offered an extraordinarily large price for her.  She was named Elizabeth Hemings.  Being thwarted in the purchase, and determining to own his flesh and blood he resolved to take the child by force or stealth, but the knowledge of his intention coming to John Wales’ ears, through leaky fellow servants of the mother, she and the child were taken into the “great house” under their master’s immediate care.  I have been informed that it was not the extra value of that child over other slave children that induced Mr. Wales to refuse to sell it, for slave masters then, as in later days, had no compunctions of conscience which restrained them from parting mother and child of however tender age, but he was restrained by the fact that just about that time amalgamation began, and the child was so great a curiosity that its owner desired to raise it himself that he might see its outcome.  Capt. Hemings soon afterwards sailed from Williamsburg, never to return.  Such is the story that comes down to me.”

“Elizabeth Hemings grew to womanhood in the family of John Wales, whose wife dying she (Elizabeth) was taken by the widower Wales as his concubine, by whom she had six children—three sons and three daughters, viz: Robert, James, Peter, Critty, Sally and Thena.  These children went by the name of Hemings….”\

“My very earliest recollections are of my grandmother Elizabeth Hemings.  That was when I was about three years old.  She was sick and upon her death bed.  I was eating a piece of bread and asked her if she would have some.  She replied: ‘No; granny don’t want bread any more.’  She shortly afterwards breathed her last.  I have only a faint recollection of her.” (Madison Hemings, 13 Mar. 1873, Pike County Republican [Waverly, Ohio])

Themes: Family, Jefferson Descent

“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. 

Themes: Jefferson Descent