What reader wouldn’t marvel at the clever way in which Annette Gordon-Reed timed her latest book? Imagine having the foresight to get a history on the enslaved Hemings family and its ties to Thomas Jefferson published the same year that the United States elected its first African-American president.
“I have to say, ‘No, I’ve been working on this book for years,’” says the author of “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (Norton, $35), which won the National Book Award in November. “Obviously I had no idea that Barack Obama was going to be president! It really wasn’t planned. But it is interesting. It’s an opportunity to think about race, the mixed-race heritage of this country. It’s odd that we portray him as if he’s some sort of amazing new thing, the mixed-race person, when in fact the story shows that we’ve always been a multiracial, mixed culture. We’ve sort of denied that and hidden that aspect of our lives as Americans.”
Gordon-Reed has long been fascinated with Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the slave who bore him seven children over 38 years. In 1997’s groundbreaking “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” Gordon-Reed explored the reluctant attitudes of historians toward the rumored liaison and examined the evidence supporting and refuting it. She eventually made an effective case that Jefferson was indeed the father of some of Hemings’ children; a year later, a DNA test confirmed her conclusion.
In “The Hemingses of Monticello” - which historian Joseph J. Ellis describes as “the most comprehensive account of one slave family ever written” - Gordon-Reed expands her vision of life on and around Monticello to include an exhaustive exploration of the Hemings family, starting with Sally’s mother Elizabeth, daughter of an unnamed African mother and an English sea captain. Other family members blaze to life, including James Hemings, who accompanied his 14-year-old sister and Jefferson to Paris and was trained as a chef by many of the best French chefs and caterers.
“The way she imbues the story with humanity and put faces on these people is remarkable,” says Ashli White, assistant professor of history at the University of Miami. “Especially because they’re part of an enslaved population that’s typically not represented in the record. It’s great detective work. It’s really important to see how the scope of this family progressed.”
For Gordon-Reed, who teaches at New York Law School and Rutgers University, watching the Hemingses blossom on the page was thrilling.
“It’s satisfying to see them as individual people, to begin to try to trace the narrative of their lives,” she says. “When I wrote the first book, other people had written about Thomas Jefferson and Sally, but to actually piece it together and begin to feel you know these people ... To see James Hemings not just as a person who floats in and out of Jefferson’s life, but to follow him as an 8-year-old catching mockingbirds for Jefferson, as a teenager in Richmond working on his own when Jefferson calls him to go to Paris - to see them unfold as people - was great and satisfying. I knew them before, but I had a much better sense of them after. Scholarship is about discovering things for myself and then transmitting that to other people.”
Gordon-Reed has been immersed in the subject for a long time, but she stumbled across a few surprises during her research. For example, John Wayles, Sally’s father - also the father of Martha Wayles, who would later marry Thomas Jefferson, creating a rather startling incestuous knot - arrived in the colonies not as a fortune seeker but a servant.
“You get the sense of him as an upper-class person from some of the things that he did, but he definitely had humble beginnings, not too far from his children,” Gordon-Reed explains. “They were enslaved, and he was a servant. He’s not that far from them, really, and that was a surprise.”
Even though we don’t truly know how Martha Wayles felt about her half-siblings, “she brought them to Monticello when she didn’t have to,” Gordon-Reed says. “There were plantation mistresses who sold their father’s offspring. They were the family’s most intimate servants. We don’t have letters saying what they mean to her, but her actions suggest she acknowledged some kind of connection ... She gave Sally Hemings a memento on her deathbed. Her enslaved sisters were with her when she died. It’s unimaginable for us, but it happened.”
Jefferson’s attitude toward Sally’s children also intrigued Gordon-Reed.
“I also think I hadn’t really pieced together how much time Jefferson spent with the Hemings children ... I found a series of letters from Jefferson’s retirement. He spent a lot of time in retirement at Poplar Forest,” his retreat near Lynchburg, Va. “It’s very isolated. But the boys were with him there for weeks and months at a time, away from Monticello but in this secluded place. That gave me a view of what his connection to them was. We tend to write and think as if he was different from them, but he wasn’t. He was a woodworker; they were trained to be carpenters. That’s the thing that’s fascinating. It was not uncommon to have blood ties between masters and slaves, but this multigenerational aspect is different. We have records because of Jefferson’s record keeping. AND he was famous.”
Still: “It is strange to think of people owning their sons and daughters.”
The history of U.S. race relations has long interested Gordon-Reed, who grew up in Conroe, Texas, during the early 1960s and went on to graduate from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School. She was the first black student in Conroe to attend a “white” school.
“Segregation was on its way out at that point, but people were being recalcitrant,” she recalls. “When I went to the doctor’s, I went into a separate waiting room. Things were in the process of being changed, but habits were in place. I grew up in a place that was still culturally segregated by custom. But it was not an unhappy place to be. We weren’t sitting around saying ‘Ain’t it awful?’ I went to school, and I enjoyed school. I made friends. There was the definite sense in the ‘60s that things were changing, that positive and optimistic change was comng.”
Gordon-Reed isn’t quite done with the Hemings family. She plans to take them ‘into the 19th century,” she says, but admits that her real subject is Jefferson, about whom she plans to write a biography.
“There’s not anybody else who did so many different things,” she says. “He had his hands in the development of America, music, architecture, cooking. Most questions they get at Monticello are about his cooking! He was a fascinating person. There were lots of things not to like about him, but the sheer breadth of his interests and his influence as someone who wants to make his mark on the world is fascinating.”