jefferson's blood
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george & venus: transcript
In 1998, a story that had persisted for some 200 years, a story dismissed as rumor, gossip and worse, was finally proven true by science. Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. The story forced new public consideration of Jefferson, and America's mixed race past.

For one particular group of women, however, the final truth about Jefferson encouraged them to believe the nation might be ready to hear their own family story.

LINDA BRYANT

When was a little girl, my mother // My mother told me and my siblings that we were related to George Washington, that he was our fifth great-grandfather.

JUDITH BURTON

My grandmother told us that we were related to George Washington and I remember how I felt, kind of in awed, you know in awe and I just couldn't fathom that but she said it a lot. She told us all the time.

Linda Allen Bryant and her sisters Joy and Janet are from Illinois. Their distant cousin Judith Burton lives in Virginia. Until recently they did not know one another, but they each grew up on stories of George Washington and a slave named Venus.

LINDA BRYANT

We were told that Venus was asked to comfort George Washington, she was probably a young teenage girl, around 15, 16 years of age, she was a house servant of his brother's. And when he became president, he no longer associated with her.

Put yourself in my position: sitting and learning about your grandfather, learning about that he couldn't tell a lie when he chopped down the cherry tree and his father asked him, and that all the great and wondrous things that he's done for this country, but no one in the country knew that he had a son and that that son was black.

West Ford was Venus's son. His descendants say that George Washington was his father and that he knew and cared for West.

LINDA BRYANT

George Washington took care of West, he singled West out of a group of slave children from the Bushfield plantation. He took West Ford on wagon rides, he took West Ford to church with him, and West Ford was his personal attendant

JUDITH BURTON

He went on picnics with them. He went to church with them; he traveled with them. His children were taught to read and write with them, with the children at Mt. Vernon. He was taught to read and write.

This spring, (2000) bolstered by Monticello's acceptance of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, the cousins took their claim to Mt. Vernon.

DENNIS POGUE

Well, the research that we've done, pretty clearly indicates that it is virtually impossible for George Washington to have ever known Venus, West Ford's mother, or to have ever met West Ford.

Venus was not Washington's slave. She lived on his brother's plantation, Bushfield, 95 miles away from Mount Vernon.

DENNIS POGUE

Since it was a two day ride down to Bushfield and two days back, you're looking at a four or five day journey. Washington was such a famous individual. He did keep his own personal diary, and there are other things that go along with that. There frankly just aren't that many periods of five days or more where we don't know where George Washington was. So it's highly unlikely that George Washington would have that opportunity to do that.

HENRY WEINCEK

It only takes one encounter to father a child. Maybe there was only one encounter, and maybe it happened at a time when the records just don't reflect it. We don't know.

Henry Weincek has spent many years studying mixed race Southern families. He is now working on a book about George Washington and slavery, and is looking into the Ford family claims about West Ford.

HENRY WEINCEK

He received very unusual treatment for a slave at that time by the Washington family after George Washington's death. And it used to be that treatment like that was seen as an example of the benevolence of slaveholders, but now we are beginning to see that it fits into a pattern of the treatment extended towards unacknowledged and cast-off children.

The lives of slaves are rarely documented, but enough evidence survives to show that West Ford was a Washington family favorite

DENNIS POGUE

There definitely is evidence to support the fact that West Ford, his mother Venus, and other members of his family did receive preferential treatment. Now the important distinction is that the treatment that they were given was, again, not given by George or Martha Washington. It was given by the Washington family at Bushfield Plantation.

Now what that has led scholars to suggest is that one of the Washington males at Bushfield may have been the father of West Ford.

JUDITH BURTON

That's the same ploy that they used down at Monticello with Thomas Jefferson. That they want to put it on one of his nephews or brother or someone.

LINDA BRYANT

We were told in our family that it is George. There are no Bushrods or Corbins in our Ford family tree of names. George has a prominent place. When Venus was pregnant with West, she was told by her mistress, Hannah Washington, she says: Who's the father of your child? And she said, "The old General be the father, Mistress."

DENNIS POGUE

Again, I don't want to denigrate anyone's family history, but oral traditions, you know, sort of have a life of their own, and they tend, in my experience, oftentimes to embellish and to move in different directions.

LINDA BRYANT

They tell us that they have no written documentation, and I say to them, Of course, not. Why would you look for a birth certificate saying that George Washington fathered West Ford? That was not going to ever come out. You're not going to see that information.

The Ford and Hemings descendants each have strong oral histories, but there are significant differences between these two cases. James Callendar wrote an article about the affair during Jefferson's lifetime. Jefferson was at Monticello nine months before each child was born. And Jefferson granted freedom to their children in his will.

DENNIS POGUE

There were no accounts during George Washington's lifetime. Nobody made any speculation about George Washington having any kind of association with any other woman other than his wife, let alone his slaves. So there's just really none of that that goes along with this. All that really is there in the Washington case is the Ford family tradition

HENRY WEINCEK

Well, the Jefferson-Hemings descendants had much more--The Jefferson descendants had much more solid evidence, as it stands now, than the Washington descendants. But still, you can't get away from that very persistent oral history. That's very strong. And you just can't dismiss it out of hand.

In the Jefferson case DNA ultimately proved decisive as the final link in a long chain of documentary evidence. Would a positive DNA match between Ford and Washington descendants break the stalemate?

DENNIS POGUE

Frankly, that wouldn't get us much farther than we are right now, because scholars have been hypothesizing for a long time that there is a Washington connection with West Ford. It's not going to get us any closer to finding out whether it was George Washington.

HENRY WEINCEK

I don't think we would ever see conclusive DNA proof that Washington was the father of West Ford. However, I think that the evidence is very very strong that West Ford might well have been the son of Bushrod Washington, who was the General George Washington's nephew.

JUDITH BURTON

I know in my heart we are going to get to the bottom of this. I know the truth and we know the circumstances. Because, just like one of my friends said, Reverend Brown. George Washington did what his peers did. They all did about the same thing.

DENNIS POGUE

There's a tendency to lump all these folks together. You know: They all did it. I've been at cocktail parties where people have come up to me and said, "You know, they all did it. So why was George Washington any different from anybody else?" Well, I think that's a flawed comment, because I don't think-- I think that that is too simplistic and that's not giving anybody any credit.

LINDA BRYANT

We want the American public to know who we are. And there's nothing wrong with that. If George Washington was in your family tree, you'd want to be able to claim him.

JUDITH BURTON

I just want the truth. It's not that I'm looking for any kind of glory out of it. I want my heritage. I don't want it to be denied. I don't want it to be a lie by omission. I want the truth.

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