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Black descendant of Thomas Jefferson explores her ancestors' legacy in new book

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Every family has its secrets and family lore, and often the inheritors of those stories can't separate fact from fiction. Yet that wasn't good enough for Gayle Jessup White. Growing up, she had heard that her African American family was somehow descended from Thomas Jefferson, but with limited records and tight-lipped relatives, there was no proof. But after years of detective work, aided by advances in DNA technology, she was finally able to piece together her family's past. She writes about it in a new book titled "Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, And A Descendant's Search For Her Family's Lasting Legacy." NPR's Michel Martin discussed the book with Jessup White, who describes herself as the five times great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson. And she starts by explaining how she first learned about this possible connection.

GAYLE JESSUP WHITE: I heard it from my oldest sister, who's about 20 years older than I am. And my sister, who's a very elegant woman, was at a dinner party with her husband. They were the guests of honor. And they were the only Blacks there. Everyone at the table at the party was discussing their lineage with great pride. And she decided to challenge the guests at the table with her own lineage. And she announced that we're descended from Thomas Jefferson. Well, this would have been taboo back in the 1960s and early '70s. And the whole room went into shock, she said. You could only hear the silver touching the china. And that's the story I heard my sister share with my dad when I was a 13-year-old girl growing up in Washington, D.C.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So you had no knowledge of this until she brought it - how did she know about this? How had she heard this?

JESSUP WHITE: Well the person who told my sister this was a woman in the family called Aunt Peachie (ph). I didn't know her. Aunt Peachie was given to old wives tales, but the one thing that my sister believed that she said repeatedly was that you're descended from Thomas Jefferson, she would say. I'm not, but you are. And my sister was a little girl when she first heard this from Aunt Peachie. And she heard it from her over and over and over again for the 20 years she lived with our family. And that's how Janice (ph) learned of this story. it was that one link. She held on to that.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that you - there was a part of you that always believed it and just had faith in it. Why do you think that was, that there's something about it that stuck with you?

JESSUP WHITE: I had some facts before me. My dad was 6'2", had red hair and freckles. Jefferson was 6'2", had red hair and freckles. And my grandmother was from Charlottesville. So there was no way that I could have pieces to the puzzle such as I did not and pursue it, not to want to put it together.

MARTIN: This was a long journey for you, and also a very long journey into public acceptance of these facts, right? What was the breakthrough in public acceptance of the fact that Thomas Jefferson - and now we're finding out that any number of Founding Fathers also had Black families.

JESSUP WHITE: Frankly, I think it was DNA evidence. Back in 1998, there was a study called The Foster study which proved that the nephews of Jefferson whom the family had claimed had fathered children with Sally Hemings could not have been the father of her children. And so we had the DNA evidence. We have the documentary evidence because every time Jefferson returned home from being in Washington during his administration as president, Sally Hemings would have a baby nine months later. Jefferson kept copious notes, so that's how we know that.

And then, of course, these stories were reported back when Jefferson was president back in 1801. It was reported in the Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had relations with an enslaved woman, Dusky Sally, she was called. And so it's not as if people didn't know, they did back then. But again, it took decades and decades for scholars and the public to accept the truth.

The other thing that's really become interesting to me is that it wasn't just Jefferson and Sally Hemings that had relations. It was four generations of the Jefferson and Hemings families. So the point here is to acknowledge that these families were entangled. They were kin, with one family owning the other. And it's important to note as well that we know what happened at Monticello, but it wasn't unusual. This was happening all over in plantations in the South.

MARTIN: I want to mention that you are now working at Monticello, which must be a kind of a head-snapping experience.

JESSUP WHITE: Well, I feel that I was actually called to do this work. I feel that the ancestors pulled me out of my hometown, my beloved hometown, Washington, D.C., to come to Richmond Virginia, which is just 70 miles from Charlottesville, so that I could become a vehicle for them, so that I could express as well as I possibly could what they were not able to. Because they were extraordinary people, and they need to be heard, and their lives have been forgotten. They weren't even considered human beings. So that I'm able to work at Monticello, that I'm able to accentuate because I'm a physical presence of who those people who were in prison there were, then it is the greatest privilege and honor of my life to be able to do so. I can't imagine being anyplace else.

MARTIN: How do you reconcile for yourself those contradictions which live in you? I mean, the fact that your ancestors owned and in many ways mistreated horribly some of your other ancestors, and that contradiction lives in you. How do you think about that?

JESSUP WHITE: Well, it really is representative of who we are as Americans and how we've at times mistreated each other. I grew up as a Black American and proud of it. I'm very comfortable with who I am and take complete ownership of my place in society and as a descendant of enslaved people. I don't apologize for my - the behavior of my ancestors. As people say, it is what it is. But what I am committed to doing is to raise the visibility of those people who didn't have a voice. And so I don't work at reconciling who my white ancestors were and who my Black ancestors were. I work at giving attention to those who never had it. That's my job. That's why I'm at Monticello. And that's why I wrote this book.

MARTIN: That is Gayle Jessup White. Her new book, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, And A Descendant's Search For Her Family's Lasting Legacy," is out now. Gayle Jessup White, thank you so much for joining us.

JESSUP WHITE: Oh, thank you so much, Michel. It was a privilege and an honor to speak with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.