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 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/)

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 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)

A Concise And Significant Reply

“We have already introduced to the reader old Wormley, a grey-haired servant of Mr. Jefferson.  We once stood with him before the dilapidated pile of Monticello.  The carriage-houses, three in number, were at the moment under our eye.  Each would hold a four-horse coach.  We inquired-‘Wormley, how often were these filled, in Mr. Jefferson’s time?’  ‘Every night, sir in summer, and we commonly had two or three carriages under that tree,’ said he, pointing to a large tree.  ‘It took all hands to take care of your visitors?’ we suggested.  ‘Yes, sir, and the whole farm to feed them,’ was the concise and significant reply.” (Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, 1865, 3: 332)

After Years Of Silence

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)

An Act Of Separation

…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)

An Affair Of Great Uncertainty To Us Slaves

“.…  About the time Mr. Jefferson took his seat as President for the second term, I began the labors of life as a waiter at the family table, and till Mr. J. died was retained in Monticello and very near his person.  When about ten years of age, I was employed as postillion.  Mr. Jefferson rode in a splendid carriage drawn by four horses.  He called the carriage the landau.  It was a sort of double chaise.  When the weather was pleasant the occupants could enjoy the open air; when it was rainy, they were protected from it by the closing of the covering, which fell back from the middle.  It was splendidly ornamented with silver trimmings, and, taken altogether, was the nicest affair in those aristocratic regions.  The harness was made in Paris, France, silver mounted, and quite in keeping with the elegant carriage.  The horses were well matched, and of a bay color.  I am now speaking of the years of my boyhood and early manhood.  My brother Gilly, being older than I was, rode the near wheel horse, while I was mounted on the near leader.  In course of time Mr. Jefferson rode less ostentatiously, and the leaders were left off.  Then but one rider was needed.  Sometimes brother Gilly acted as postillion; at other times I was employed.  We were both retained about the person of our master as long as he lived.  Mr. Jefferson died on the 4th day of July, 1826, when I was upwards of 29 years of age.  His death was an affair of great moment and uncertainty to us slaves, for Mr. Jefferson provided for the freedom of 7 servants only: Sally, his chambermaid, who took the name of Hemmings, her four children—Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston—John Hemmings, brother to Sally, and Burrell Colburn, an old and faithful body servant.  Madison Hemmings is now a resident of Ross county, Ohio, whose history you gave in the Republican of March 13, 1873.  All the rest of us were sold from the auctioneer’s block, by order of Jefferson Randolph, his grandson and administrator.  The sale took place in 1829, three years after Mr. Jefferson’s death.

I was purchased by Thomas Walker Gilmer, afterwards Governor of Virginia, and later, member of Congress from the district in which Monticello was situated.  He was an attorney-at-law, and a most excellent gentleman.” (Israel Jefferson, Pike County Republican, 25 Dec. 1873)