Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family

Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family

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by Shannon Lanier, Jane Feldman

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On October 31, 1998, the Associated Press broke the news of the DNA findings linking Thomas Jefferson to Sally Hemings through the Eston Hemings line. On November 10, on national TV, Oprah united members of the Jefferson family and the descendants of the Eston, Madison, and Woodson lines of the Hemings family—and history was made. On this show, Lucian…  See more details below


On October 31, 1998, the Associated Press broke the news of the DNA findings linking Thomas Jefferson to Sally Hemings through the Eston Hemings line. On November 10, on national TV, Oprah united members of the Jefferson family and the descendants of the Eston, Madison, and Woodson lines of the Hemings family—and history was made. On this show, Lucian Truscott IV, a Jefferson descendant, issued an invitation to the Hemings family to come to a family reunion at Monticello. At the reunion, emotions ran high—and it was in this setting that photographer Jane Feldman met Shannon Lanier and the idea for this book was born. The authors have since traveled the country amassing historical materials and interviewing and photographing members of both sides of the family. This is the story of their journey, 200 years back in time, and back and forth across family and racial lines. It is not so much a story of black and white as it is a story about an American family.

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Editorial Reviews

Anthony Johnson
It's been well-known for a long time, yet conveniently ignored by larger society in general and many of his Caucasian descendents in particular, that Thomas Jefferson, like many slaveholders, has black descendants. In 1999, despite family opposition, the widest range ever of Jefferson's ancestors got together at Monticello for the annual reunion. For the first time, this reunion included the African American side of Jefferson's family who draw their lineage through Sally Hemmings, a woman owned by the former president, with whom she is said to have conceived a number of children.

Jefferson's Children is a collection of short biographies and commentary from participants in that historical reunion, compiled by Shannon Lanier, an African American descendent of Hemmings and Jefferson. A wide range of attitudes can be found from family members of varied backgrounds. Questions of historical accuracy, ideals of family, identity, race and denial are all put on the line here, honestly.

Accompanied by the crisp photography of Jane Feldman, and numerous family tree portraits, the different factions exude a self-conscious honesty making this a visual, and verbal dialogue worthy of the complex feelings engendered when issues of race and racial diversity within families arise, especially when they have been hidden in family history. Subtitled, The Story of One American Family, Lanier and Feldman have put together a book about American history, racial identity and the bonds of family that will help young people navigate these difficult areas, with the author's own youthful optimism as their guide, whatever hostilities they may face.
Black Issues Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"My name is Shannon Lanier. I am a twenty-year-old descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings," begins this thought-provoking, handsome volume designed to resemble a family photo album. Earnest and energetic, Lanier, Jefferson's fifth great-grandson through Sally Hemings's son Madison, brings both these qualities to his anecdotal narrative as he introduces descendents through both family lines and affectingly conveys the tension that surrounded some of his encounters. Describing the first Jefferson family reunion to which the Hemings relatives were invited, at Monticello in 1999, Lanier writes: "There were Jeffersons there who threw their arms around me, and one woman who looked at my outstretched hand and actually shuddered." Those responses are reflected in the profiles here, too, from Jane Floyd's (a descendant of Sally Hemings's and Jefferson's eldest son) articulate discussion of black history including the forming of the NAACP, to Jane Randolph Schluter's flat refusal to believe that Jefferson fathered Hemings's children ("In my family, it was always referred to as a rumor propagated by the Hemings family"). Not surprisingly, some of the subjects are more eloquent and have more compelling stories to recount than others (and some detail their family trees to such a degree that youngsters may get lost in the branches). But this makes a strong teaching tool and springboard for discussion on subjects as varied as understanding one's own genealogy and the devastating results of racial prejudice. Archival photographs supplement Feldman's crisp and candid black-and-white shots, which capture the essence of each subject. Ages 10-up. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
It is common knowledge that Thomas Jefferson, the notable author of the phrase "All Men Are Created Equal," was a slave owner. What had never been brought to light until recently is that Jefferson had taken slave Sally Hemings as a mistress after the death of his wife, Martha, in 1782. Their relationship produced six children; each established a rich lineage. Twenty-year-old Lanier, a descendent of Jefferson and Hemings through their son Madison, attended the first reunion of both branches of the family at Monticello, where he met his photographer co-author. Through photographs, primary documents, family trees, and interviews, Lanier paints a complete—and sometimes heartbreaking—portrait of two families attempting to reconcile Jefferson's past with the revelation of the present: that a truly interracial family was created. The book presents purely historical discussions of the background of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, followed with essays written by each surviving family member on both sides, as well as a contribution by the pathologist who tracked the Y chromosome of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson-Heming line. Each vignette is written with an openness and reflection that no hour-long talk program could provide. Lanier's role as tour guide and narrator helps readers feel comfortable discovering how these people felt about the amazing public revelation. The book combines the validity of nonfiction with the kind of compelling story line found in great fiction. Young readers will marvel at how men, women, and children of two races and varied backgrounds set aside those differences to embrace each another as family. The lack of a table of contents makes the book feel lessacademic and more approachable. Librarians, this book is a winner. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P M J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2000, Random House, 144p, Index, Illus, Photos, Maps. Further Reading, Chronology. Ages 12 to 18. Reviewer: Beth Gilbert VOYA, February 2001 (Vol. 23, No.6)
Children's Literature
Shannon Lanier was studying at Kent State University when he saw his cousins on the Oprah Winfrey Show, November 12, 1998. Oprah showed descendants of Thomas Jefferson from his wife, Martha, and from his slave, Sally Hemings. This was ten days after DNA findings linked Jefferson to Sally's youngest son. On the show one of Martha's descendants invited the Hemings descendants to the annual Jefferson family reunion at Monticello, May 15, 1999. Shannon Lanier knew from family oral history that he was the sixth great-grandson of Jefferson. He attended the Monticello reunion and met Jane Feldman, the photographer. Together they worked to combine short interviews with pictures of those interviewed and their families. Those interviewed represent the diverse views of both sides of the family. The right to be buried in the Jefferson family cemetery is controlled and the upkeep funded by the Monticello Association, which is part of the family contention. This is important book offers a chance for readers to examine their various shades of prejudice. The authors sought not only to discover ancestry and meet new friends, but also to bring healing to our country. This book will be especially helpful to those with "blended" families. 2002 (orig. 2000), Random House,
— Carlee Hallman <%ISBN%>0375805974
Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings is at the heart of this book written by Shannon Lanier, a descendent who wanted to tell the story of his ancestors through the words of both white and black family members. Using the touchstone of "family," Lanier provides an oral history that is compelling and heartwarming. Enhanced by the unique photography of Jane Feldman, the stories reveal people deeply interested in finding their roots and acknowledging their common heritage. For some this is not possible without scientific proof and historical documentation, but others are more open and willing to look at the bigger picture of familial relationships. The way that people view race and how they define black and white are important aspects of Lanier's interviews. Readers of all ages will find this book a springboard for positive and serious discussions about these issues and the bigger issues of family relationships. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, 160p. illus. index., Gerrity
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-Twenty-year-old Lanier, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, delves into genealogy, oral history, photographs, and personal experience to trace the verifiable lineage of Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles, and the less certain lineage of Jefferson and Hemings. An American family emerges that embodies the diversity and the complexity of our multiracial society. The confirmed DNA connection between Jefferson and Sally's youngest son, Eston, inspired the family reunion of May 15, 1999. Despite the reluctance of the Monticello Association to acknowledge Jefferson's relationship with Hemings, the passion and pride of many black, white, and mixed descendants at the reunion prompted Lanier to explore his shared heritage. Traveling throughout the country, he visited Jefferson's descendants, recording their reminiscences and attitudes about their family tree. Through interviews with over 25 Jefferson and/or Hemings relatives, Lanier discovered that the "family's secret" had been kept by many families for generations. As social barriers relaxed in the last 30 years, Hemings family members have spoken up, articulating the oral history of their ancestry, researching their roots, and reflecting on the remarkable man and devoted servant from whom they originated. Through this collection of engaging contemporary testimonials and photographs of blacks and whites, young and old, Lanier sheds light not only on his own heritage but also on the understanding and pride that emerge when family history is explored.-Gerry Larson, Durham School of the Arts, NC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Patricia J. Williams
''Jefferson's Children'' is an anthology of personal meditations by a variety of Jefferson's living descendants. Edited by Shannon Lanier, a descendant through Sally's son Madison Hemings's line, the portraits that emerge are as generous and jumbled as America itself. The statements range from hostile to conciliatory to indifferent to eloquent. A peculiar kind of conversation takes shape, a bit like what one might overhear at a shotgun wedding -- scattered, oblique and utterly fascinating. Jane Feldman's photographs are as fascinating as the text.
New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

DIANE Publishing Company
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Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

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Jefferson's Children : The Story of One American Family 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! It is an exploration of what makes family through the eyes of these Jefferson decendants. I feel the book is an unbiased report because each member tells their story in their own words. That's a great way to discuss family, race, and blood with members of your family. With the many folks that make up the USA, this is a great way to have a greater understanding of each other through this family. I think I'm going to start documenting my own story. Let me get a pen!