Article in The Richmond Times

Williams: Confronting Jefferson’s legacy unites two women

Updated Sep 14, 2013

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Sitting in her grade school classroom in California, Tess Taylor maintained a code of silence about being a descendant of Thomas Jefferson as she sorted through familial pride and shame.

Gayle Jessup White, a Washington native who now calls Henrico County home, engaged in a passionate pursuit of the elusive connection between her family and Jefferson’s.

On Wednesday, the white woman and black woman — in all likelihood, cousins — met for the first time. They hiked a path to the Monticello Graveyard, examining an ancestral legacy from opposite perspectives.

Taylor, from El Cerrito, Calif., was at Jefferson’s historic plantation for a reading and signing of her book of poetry, “The Forage House,” inspired by her ambivalence about a family whose forebear embodies the nation’s highest ideals and its starkest failure to live up to them.

One poem, “Southampton County Will 1745,” lays bare her conflict:

I, Etheldred Taylor, of sound mind and body

in the presence of God almighty amen

do deed three things:

Books Negroes Land.

As Taylor asked during that hike to the family plot, “What do you do with a flawed inheritance?”

Taylor, 35, and White, 56, represent at least one answer to the question: You reach out, compare notes, acknowledge your differences and embrace your commonality.

“We have a shared history, and we’re both interested in history,” Taylor said.

They also share a journalism background — Taylor has a master’s in journalism from New York University, White from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

And then there are the bloodlines.

Tess Taylor is the great-great-granddaughter of Bennett Taylor. Bennett Taylor is the grandson of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the oldest grandson of Thomas Jefferson.

No one questions this. It is inscribed in genealogies such as “Burke’s Presidential Families of the United States of America.”

White’s link to this heritage was the stuff of oral history and family lore. “I’ve been working on establishing a Jefferson family connection for 40 years,” she said. Google led her to Taylor’s poetry.

Bennett Taylor, as it turned out, was the brother of Moncure Robinson Taylor (1851-1915), a man listed in the Jessup family tree as White’s great-grandfather.

According to family lore, White’s grandmother, Eva Robinson Taylor, was the child of Moncure Taylor and Rachael Robinson, a black woman who was a domestic servant in the household of Moncure’s father.

After reading an online review of Tess Taylor’s book of poetry, White reached out. They began corresponding.

On Wednesday, they formed an immediate bond.

“I thought I was over with this journey,” White said. “I thought that once I was able to confirm that the family lore was true and once I would actually confront a family descendant from the same line, I would be whole.”

But energized by Taylor’s youth and earnestness, she now has “a broader mission … to find common ground” as part of a dialogue about race.

“It’s possible not even to like people in your own family,” Taylor said, “and the thing that was delightful was the probability that we’re related and we do get along. That made me happy.”

It also made Taylor yearn to be able to confirm White’s family story.

“These types of relationships cannot be proven,” said Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, a retired senior research historian at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and a leading authority on the lives of the enslaved at Monticello, “but you can look at the evidence and weigh how probable something seems.”

Stanton, after meeting White and absorbing her family’s oral history, poked around and found an Eva Robinson Taylor of Charlottesville who, according to the 1900 census, was living as a domestic worker at Edgehill with Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Carolina “Cary” Randolph.

“My view is that the combinations of different types of evidence … and what we and other people who’ve helped her have found in the records … really strongly supports her descent of Jefferson through one of Jefferson’s great-grandsons.”

I was taught: He could not afford to free his slaves.

“Most valuable for their number ever offered at one time in the state of Virginia”

said the newspaper his granddaughter’s husband published.

FOR AUCTION: Furniture, family.

Taylor knew at age 10 that she was related to Jefferson. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the full emotional weight of her family legacy came crashing down on her.

A marker found on Jefferson’s Y chromosome was found on the DNA of Sally Hemings’ male descendants, supporting a long-held contention by African-Americans who claimed kinship with the Jefferson clan.

That same year, Taylor had been writing — archly, as she recalls — about New York City’s unwillingness to own a legacy of slavery that had been unearthed with the discovery of an African burial ground.

“I kind of realized, in this kind of strange way, that I had forgotten there had been slavery in my family,” she said.

She wanted to learn more. She spent 2005-2006 at Monticello immersed in family documents, public records and other research for her book.

I can trace the names of his white children’s descendants.

Where the enslaved went after auction

is partial —

not all written down.

White was 12 when her older sister told her about the family’s ancestral lore. Her father “really didn’t want to talk about it,” for reasons etched in shame and pain.

White understands her father’s feelings but seeks to work past them. “I have tried to imagine it was a more loving relationship,” she said, citing evidence of a long-term connection between Moncure Taylor and Robinson.

Her father, meanwhile, became more open to discussing the subject after the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots” and the increased evidence linking Jefferson and Hemings.

Stanton says that where this saga of race and family is concerned, we’re in a “transitional period” that not all family members will navigate comfortably — a reality Taylor can attest to.

“It’s still a very fraught situation,” Stanton said. “And that Tess and Gayle can get together and talk meaningfully about this is a great thing.”

Meanwhile, in poems such as “A Letter to Jefferson from Monticello,” Taylor continues to search for the meaning of her “flawed inheritance.”

Mr. Jefferson: You’ve also left me this:

I’ve never had to work in

any field except for gardens that I’ve planted.

I roam with a lion’s share of your uneven freedom …

O architect of hopes and lies,

brilliant, fascinating —

ambitious foundering father I revere & hate & see myself in.

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