Thomas Jefferson’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandson Poses for a Presidential Portrait

We hold these truths to be self-evi­dent: that all men are cre­at­ed equal; that they are endowed by their Cre­ator with cer­tain unalien­able rights; that among these are life, lib­er­ty and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness…  —Thomas Jef­fer­son, 3rd Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca

He was a bril­liant man who preached equal­i­ty, but he didn’t prac­tice it. He owned peo­ple. And now I’m here because of it. —Shan­non LaNier, co-author of Jefferson’s Chil­dren: The Sto­ry of One Amer­i­can Fam­i­ly

Many of the Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pants in pho­tog­ra­ph­er Drew Gard­ner’s ongo­ing Descen­dants project agreed to tem­porar­i­ly alter their usu­al appear­ance to height­en the his­toric resem­blance to their famous ances­tors, adopt­ing Eliz­a­beth Cady Stanton’s lace cap and sausage curls or Fred­er­ick Dou­glass’ swept back mane.

Actor and tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Shan­non LaNier sub­mit­ted to an uncom­fort­able, peri­od-appro­pri­ate neck­wrap, tugged into place with the help of some dis­creet­ly placed paper­clips, but skipped the wig that would have brought him into clos­er vis­i­ble align­ment with an 1800 por­trait of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand­fa­ther, Thomas Jef­fer­son.

“I didn’t want to become Jef­fer­son,” states LaNier, whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand­moth­er, Sal­ly Hem­ings, was writ­ten out of the nar­ra­tive for most of our country’s his­to­ry.

An enslaved half-sis­ter of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, Hem­ings was around six­teen when she bore Jefferson’s first child, as per the mem­oir of her son, Madi­son, from whom LaNier is also direct­ly descend­ed.

She has been por­trayed onscreen by actors Car­men Ejo­go and Thandie New­ton (and Maya Rudolph in an icky Sat­ur­day Night Live skit.)

But there are no pho­tographs or paint­ed por­traits of her, nor any sur­viv­ing let­ters or diary entries. Just two accounts in which she is described as attrac­tive and light-skinned, and some polit­i­cal car­toons that paint an unflat­ter­ing pic­ture.

The mys­tery of her appear­ance might make for an inter­est­ing com­pos­ite por­trait should the Smith­son­ian, who com­mis­sioned Gardner’s series, seek to entice all of LaNier’s female and female-iden­ti­fy­ing cousins from the Hem­ings line to pose.

While LaNier was aware of his con­nec­tion to Jef­fer­son from ear­li­est child­hood, his peers scoffed and his moth­er had to take the mat­ter up with the prin­ci­pal after a teacher told him to sit down and stop lying. As he recalled in an inter­view:

When they didn’t believe me, it became one of those things you stop shar­ing because, you know, peo­ple would make fun of you and then they’d say, “Yeah, and I’m relat­ed to Abra­ham Lin­coln.”

His fam­i­ly pool expand­ed when Jefferson’s great-great-great-great-grand­son, jour­nal­ist Lucian King Truscott IVwhose fifth great-grand­moth­er was Martha Jef­fer­sonissued an open invi­ta­tion to Hem­ings’ descen­dants to be his guests at a 1999 fam­i­ly reunion at Mon­ti­cel­lo.

It would be anoth­er 20 years before the Thomas Jef­fer­son Foun­da­tion and Mon­ti­cel­lo tour guides stopped fram­ing Hem­ings’ inti­mate con­nec­tion to Jef­fer­son as mere tat­tle.

Now vis­i­tors can find an exhib­it ded­i­cat­ed to her life, both online and in the recent­ly reopened house-muse­um.

Truscott laud­ed the move in an essay on Salon, pub­lished the same week that a year­book pho­to of Vir­ginia Gov­er­nor Ralph Northam in black­face pos­ing next to a fig­ure in KKK robes began to cir­cu­late:

Mon­ti­cel­lo is com­mit­ting an act of equal­i­ty by telling the sto­ry of slave life there, and by exten­sion, slave life in Amer­i­ca. When my cousins in the Hem­ings fam­i­ly stand up and proud­ly say, we are descen­dants of Thomas Jef­fer­son, they are com­mit­ting an act of equal­i­ty…. The pho­to­graph you see here is a pic­ture of who we are as Amer­i­cans. One day, a pho­to­graph of two cousins, one black and one white, will not be seen as unusu­al. One day, acts of equal­i­ty will out­weigh acts of racism. Until that day, how­ev­er, Shan­non and I will keep fight­ing for what’s right. And one day, we will win.

Watch a video of Jef­fer­son descen­dant Shan­non Lanier’s ses­sion with pho­tog­ra­ph­er Drew Gard­ner here.

See more pho­tos from Gardner’s Descen­dents project here.

Read his­to­ri­an Annette Gor­don-Reed’s New York Times op-ed on the com­pli­cat­ed Hem­ings-Jef­fer­son con­nec­tion here.

via Petapix­el

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

John Trumbull’s Famous 1818 Paint­ing Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence Vir­tu­al­ly Defaced to Show Which Found­ing Fathers Owned Slaves

Meet “Found­ing Moth­er” Mary Katharine God­dard, First Female Post­mas­ter in the U.S. and Print­er of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence

Hamil­ton Mania Inspires the Library of Con­gress to Put 12,000 Alexan­der Hamil­ton Doc­u­ments Online

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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    I am of the opin­ion that most peo­ple don’t claim their her­itage because it would mean they are not per­fect in some way. How do you get one Racial pro­file out a peo­ple who are mul­tira­cial. Then of course there would­n’t be any white peo­ple which also says there would­n’t and black peo­ple. These racial dis­tinc­tions keep the coun­try divid­ed because some­one wants to be more dom­i­nate than the next per­son.

  • Tibor Sallai says:

    Main prob­lem is that peo­ple obsessed what oth­ers think about them. Who cares about col­ors and her­itage? It’s part of you but far from defin­ing you. Your deci­sions, your acts, your thoughts are only yours. No mat­ter what. Accep­tance is the rarest word I saw in any kind of West­ern arc­ti­cles. Equal­i­ty, sure… wow, but accep­tance? Self accep­tance? No way. Sad.

  • jim brennan says:

    “But there are no pho­tographs or paint­ed por­traits of her, nor any sur­viv­ing let­ters or diary entries.” Is that Eng­lish for “no evi­dence”? Sounds like it to me. Show me some­thing con­crete? DNA? Friends she talked to? Any­thing? Besides con­jec­ture and slan­der? Just ask­ing.….….

  • Jim — There are two brief descrip­tions — I think both came from peo­ple who were enslaved at Mon­ti­cel­lo with her. Both remarked that she was very hand­some and very light skinned.

  • Edward A Carraway says:

    Iam a 6x direct grand­son the Anne [Jef­fer­son] Kempe Car­raway. 1st cousin to Jef­fer­son and John Mar­shalk, all had same grand­fa­ther.

    I am a cousin to his slaves chil­dren.
    A n.v d have told all I have know for decades. I am 83 yrs. Old born in North Car­oli­na where grand­moth­er and John David Car­raway 111 migrat­ed from Vir­ginia. She was giv­en a lock­et giv­en to her in the will I read by the orig­i­nal Thomas Jef­fer­son.

    It would be an hon­or to meet and greet her prog­e­ny. Hope­ful­ly at a fam­i­ly reunion.

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