jefferson's blood
homevideo reportsis it true?jefferson enigmaslaves' storychronologyview the story

What are your views on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship, and the racial boundary which divides their descendants?


Dear Frontline,

I sat slack-jawed as Frontline treated mere speculation as if it were fact. Frontline's dogmatic and resolute pronouncements that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' children were more than just "misleading", they were outright scandalous, since the Foster data only show that "a Jefferson", whether white or black, fathered her last child, Eston, but not her first child, Thomas. Everything else in "Jefferson's Blood" is one-sided conjecture with a few perfunctory alternatives that are all but hidden and unexplored. I was surprised by the blatant lack of balance in the program and that other possible explanations were ignored, such as Gary Davis, Nature, January 7, 1999 pg. 32, in which he proposed that a black descendant of Thomas Jefferson's father, grandfather, or paternal uncles possibly impregnated Hemings.

What is Frontline's motivation for knowingly perpetuating the "unfortunate" slipup that Eugene Foster himself acknowledged as "misleading"? There is no question that "a Jefferson" was the father of Eston Hemings. But, Frontline seems determined to sculpt speculation into fact and to disregard plausible explanations that do not support Frontline's racial agenda, i.e., that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' black children.. .

"Jefferson's Blood" is a lesson for everyone to look at news reporting with a jaundiced eye.

D.A. Hirsch
Los Angeles, CA


Your Jefferson/Hemmings documentary was fascinating not so much for the controversy surrounding who was the father of Hemming's children, but for the exploration of the more general question of what race means. . . I assume that, like me, many viewers -- both black and white -- looked at the pictures of some of the families that you showed and thought, "THOSE people are black?!?" I mean this in no way to devalue or degrade the self-conceptions of these people. Our country, while in many ways light-years ahead of where we were just a few decades ago, is still burdened with the vestiges of our past. Since our white-majority government declared these people black, and then mistreated them based on this classification, its unsurprising that these people would resist the "opportunity" to now declare themselves white. . .

Of course, to the legitimate heirs of Jefferson, this story serves a double blow. First, the reputation of their hero is stained by the verification of perhaps the most scurrilous accusation made against their hero. Second, their conventional view of the "Jefferson Family" is swept away, and is replaced by something that is messy and complicated -- much like the story of race in America. One solution for these people would be to redefine their family as the "legitimate" descendents of Jefferson, but concepts like legitimacy and bastardy rather out of favor these days. Furthermore, making such distinctions may lead to unwanted examinations of other branches of the family tree.
Race continues to play a central role in America today, and almost surely will for the foreseeable future. For those who doubt this, I repeat the following pithy observation that I recently read: "America is a country where a white woman can give birth to a black child, but a black woman can't give birth to a white child."

Steven Lent
Arlington, VA


Again, why is that whenever people talk about miscegenation, as is the case in the Jefferson/Hemings matter, folks rarely, if ever, talk about the percentage of whites who have black ancestry? Given the phenomenon of "passing," it is obvious that racial mixing flowed in both directions. This is a matter few seem willing to talk about. Why? If whites were to confront the inescapable fact that some whites have African ancestry, that, in my judgment, would clearly help both blacks and whites to sort through the problem of race in America.

waldron brando
delaware, ohio


I'm afraid that attempts to reconcile the truth of the Sally Hemmings story with our respect and admiration for Jefferson as a man are futile.

It is true that what Jefferson did, even without the power he had over her as "master," would be considered statutory rape today, and I assume in Jefferson's time also had Sally been the legally white daughter of another plantation owner.

Moreover, the fact that she was regarded as his property makes it impossible that she could have given her free consent to the relationship--even if physical force was never used or threatened. Jefferson's brilliance and the fact that he did see the evils of slavery that others ignored, makes him more culpable, not less. Whatever excuses you might make for him, ignorance is not one of them.

A man like Jefferson was fully capable of self-control. In the culture in which he lived he knew that he could never marry Sally Hemmings--a decent man would have therefore resisted the temptation. But what no one seems to have commented on is Jefferson's unwillingness to make any substantial sacrifice to ensure the freedom of his slaves, and his attempt to extend that right of selfishness to the whole white nation--which in his view, could not afford to give up slavery. His attitude seems to be that slavery was an evil and an injustice, but one that should be eliminated or curtailed only when convenient to the white man.

The claim that Jefferson was prevented from freeing his own slaves by financial constraints is weak to say the least. He spent lavishly not only on his needs, but on selfish wants. If he hadn't lived in the grand style in France perhaps he wouldn't have incurred those debts which made it so difficult to do the right thing and grant them freedom. His attitude seemed to be that if he had any scraps left over after his feast, he would throw them to the slaves--but to give of his substance, he was unwilling.

The Hemmings-Jefferson saga does not negate Jefferson's accomplishments as a politician, intellectual and Founding Father, and there are many qualities about him that we still should admire and emulate--but the personal view of Jefferson as American hero cannot be sustained.

The program was fascinating and thought-provoking, prompting me to confront the fears I might have if I discovered that my family included black ancestors and how others might view me if they knew. It also left me saddened in that I cannot logically excuse this man I once admired.

These are not minor flaws in the character of a great man--these are serious moral and ethical transgressions in someone who should have and did in fact know better.

Kelly Smith
Niagara Falls, NY


I am 49 yrs. old and an American of the second generation born in this counry. I have grandparents from
Cuba, Portugal, and Spain. I was raised in a community that can best be termed as a "melting pot".
I have never, and I am sure, that I
will never understand how the
pigments in a person's skin can really and truly cause human beings such endless agonies. Are we as a species mentally and physically
unable to accept color differences in our own species? This is painfully true. I believe the
decendents of the Heming family
have every right to whatever they want from the Monticello group.
Come on, this is America, to be barred is illegal, isn't it???
Anita Winder

anita wnder
inverness, fl


Thanks Frontline for what I believe to be one of the most balanced reports that I've seen on the Jefferson families.

Race in America has created "Two Nations" as Hacker and many others have described, however in truth it is the denial of our common humanity and mixing whether forced or consential that makes all of our divisiveness utterly stupid.

Most of us have mixed parentage, with most of it unknown. These individuals who want to try and manitain illogical ideas of quote "pure bloods" are living in dream world.

We are one human family with different values, shades of skin, talents, etc., and God designed it that way giving every one something to contribute to the whole of humanity. Truth hurts only when you don't want to believe it or accept it. Jefferson was a product of his times and accepted culture.

He was human and he loved a women with African heritage and some men of African heritage fathered children by women of European heritage. It's truth! So those of you like Mr. Cox in Houston GET OVER IT!!!

Samuel Green
Dallas, TX


If Sally Hemings had a 40 year relationship with Thomas Jefferson and bore him four children that lived to adulthood, she would have been the most well known person at Monticello, next to Jefferson himself.

Yet, not one person leaves a single word about her her,other than she had "long hair" and was "near white." She is an historical cipher. During her lifetime, there was not a single eyewitness,out of the hundreds who would have been at Monticello, who claimed that her children were fathered by Jefferson, including Sally herself, her brothers who were freed, and her own children, the two who ran away and the two freed by Jefferson's will.

Richard Dixon
Fairfax, VA


Thank you for this fine program.

As a decendent of slaves and slave-masters, I understand what the Hemming side of Jefferson's family have experienced.
We have never dealt successfully with the issue of slavery in this country.

Until white America rids itself of the false notion that they are inherently better than Americans of African descent, our common history will continue to haunt us.

Doris Haskins
Columbia, SC


Why do you at PBS, and in the media in general, insist on spending so much time and effort on a 200 year old politically motivated scandal?

Another recently aired program on PBS about previous presidents stressed a generally negative side to all the previous Presidents. Is it just a general unconscious effort by the media to make every other President look as bad as possible? Is it to protect and hopefully make the image of our current impeached president look as good as possible?

There are much more pressing and current stories about a law breaking president that are just begging to be told but which the media, for unknown reasons, are doing everything they can to ignore. Is it because your government funding has been threatened to be withdrawn if you dare to tell the truth?

Rich Campbell
Las Vegas, NV


I am a father of multi-racial children and feel that the split of the Hemmings is a reflect of what this society is as a whole - it is sad to say the least. We dwell in things that has no meaning and find lines to be drawn. I think this age-old question will be preserved the same way as we found it well into next century. I'm very sorry!

Patana Chantarojwong


Thomas Jefferson is one of my all-time heros. While he was clearly a man trapped by his own circumstance debts and the social beliefs of his time, his best philosophies remain the heart of our nation at its finest.

It's amazing that 200+ years later, we are still trapped in the social beliefs of HIS time. I can't help thinking that old Thomas has had the last laugh, watching all of us trying to account for labels that in the end mean nothing. While I can sympathize with a search for the truth, in the end it simply displays the prejudices we all harbor, both black and white. Until those labels disappear, we shall all be measured against them.

Dave Roberts
Fremont, CA


The only shame that the Jefferson/Hemmings family needs to feel is shame for Jefferson's betrayal of his own principles.

Sally Hemmings was a victim of slavery, a young girl who was smart enough to eventually succeed in seeing her children freed from slavery.

The tragedy of the family now is the self imposed schism within the family, sharing with Jefferson the same powerful DNA of denial, and perpetuating racial differences into their own children's futures.

Valerie Hartsfield
Topanga, California


What do the terms black and white mean? Do they refer to racial heritage or cultural heritage? Do you have to be black or white or can you be just human?

In terms of culture most white and black Americans are more like each other than either are like their transatlantic fore bearers. They are both Americans rather than Europeans or Africans.

Racial heritage just depends on how far back you want to go. Go back two hundred years and the English and Germans are considered different peoples. Go back two thousand and the Angles, i.e. the English, were Germans. Go back far enough and all individuals of the species Homo sapiens become Africans. A small group of Africans at that.

Robert Boon
Mountain View, AR


It disturbs me that Jefferson's sexual use of a female slave--a common and repugnant practice of southern white slaveowners--is considered anything but rape especially considering that he was over 40 and she was 16 when he started!. A slave, by definition, has no power of refusal--she has to do what the master wants. Without the power of refusal, "consent" becomes meaningless. Just because it went on for over 30 years does not make it "romantic love," anymore than it is romantic love when a father molests his daughter for years and years. The only reason that Jefferson is not viewed like any other abusive and exploitative slaveholder is, in my opinion, "cognitive dissonance"--people just can't reconcile that the author of the Declaration of Independence was just another rapist!

Judith Antonelli
Brookline, MA


After viewing the Jefferson/Hemings story, I still don't believe Jefferson fathered those children. If I were the white Jefferson's I'd be upset, also, for the other so-called descendents to spread these stories. I wouldn't let them into the "family" - no way.

brenda gruenewald
statesboro, ga

click here for more
home   view the report   is it true?   the jefferson enigma   the slaves' story   mixed race america
special video reports   discussion   links   quiz   chronology   gene map
synopsis   tapes   teacher's guide   press
FRONTLINE   pbs online   wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation