Co-Authors of "Jefferson's Children" Speak at Mount Union College
February 13, 2003
"What is a family?" This is one of the questions co-authors Shannon Lanier and Jane Feldman posed to the audience during convocation Thursday, February 13 at Mount Union College's Presser Recital Hall.
Lanier and Feldman researched Lanier's family history for the book, "Jefferson's Children: the Story of One American Family." Lanier had always been told that he was the descendent of Thomas Jefferson. No one outside of his family believed him, because Lanier is African-American. But the story of his family -- that they were descendents of children of Thomas Jefferson and his African-American slave, Sally Hemings -- had been passed down for generations. In 1998, news broke that there was DNA evidence supporting the premise that Jefferson fathered six children with Hemings. Suddenly, people were more receptive to what Lanier had always known as the truth.
Lanier recounted the day he was in his dorm room at Kent State University, and his mother called, telling him to turn on the 'Oprah' show.
"There on stage was my family -- relatives that I have known all my life -- and people I had never seen before, but who I learned were my relatives as well," said Lanier. When Lucian K. Turscott, a Jefferson descendent from Jefferson and his wife, Martha, extended an invitation to all the Hemings cousins to attend a reunion at Monticello, Lanier knew immediately that he would attend.
"This was my first opportunity to meet these people," said Lanier. At the reunion, Lanier talked with Feldman, who was in the process of developing a proposal for a book about an American family. When she saw the Jeffersons and the Hemingses at Monticello that day, she knew she had found her American family. She and Lanier teamed up to take a group photo of all the descendents -- both black and white -- on the steps of Monticello.
Lanier and Feldman showed slides, tracing Lanier's ancestry six generations back, showing him to be the sixth great grandchild of Jefferson. They explained how they followed the steps of his family from slavery in Southern Virginia to Ohio, and described how they, along with Lanier's mother and grandmother, uncovered the history of his diverse family.
"This is a peek into the legacy of slavery. This is what actually happened," said Feldman.
Lanier encouraged the audience to become involved in researching their own family history.
"If you are not interested now, someday you will be," Lanier.
"In some families, like mine, tracing the heritage is not as easy. Shannon's was different because his relatives are famous! But a legacy can begin here and now. Nine generations from now, my relatives will be able to look back upon their heritage," said Feldman.
Feldman said that the interviews of descendents of Jefferson and his wife, Martha, and those descendents of Jefferson and Hemings, are "voices of a family."
"There are descendents in the book who do believe in the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, and those who don't believe," said Feldman. "There are people interviewed as young as eleven and as old as 97. But what you get is family stories."