I learned about her through the comments section of an article in Publisher’s Weekly. I had recently published a book of poems crafted out of family stories, and it had been written up, along with a brief interview. In the interview, I reckon with the complicated history of my family — I am a white descendant of Thomas Jefferson — and the fact that some of my ancestors were slave owners from 1670 until the Civil War.
In the comments section, the woman, Gayle Jessup White, had written: “I am an African-American Jefferson descendant. My grandmother was a Taylor (although her mother didn’t exactly marry into the family!), a direct descendant from J.C. Randolph Taylor and Martha Jefferson Randolph” — Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. “Tess Taylor — I wonder if we share great-great-grandparents? The plot thickens.”
The story of Sally Hemings, a slave in the Jefferson household — and the children she most likely bore the third president — is by now widely accepted. That story has offered a chance for people descended from slave owners and those descended from enslaved people to begin to recognize their connections. But the situation, at least in my family, remains delicate. Some white Jefferson descendants have welcomed Hemings descendants. Others have not. Hemings descendants are not allowed to be buried in the family graveyard at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, because despite increased evidence, there is, technically, room for scientific doubt. The doubt in turn points to great historical violence: Because it was not the custom of slave owners to name who fathered the mulatto children on their plantations, we have little documentary evidence that would constitute legal “proof” of our interrelationship.
Yet the fact is that many so-called white and so-called black people in our country are actually deeply interrelated. It is highly likely that I have distant cousins I’ll never know, people who’ll never come to any family reunion. Historians have obsessed over Jefferson’s possible liaisons, but slavery lasted many generations. Among his sons, grandsons, great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons, there were bound to be other liaisons and therefore other direct lineal descendants of Jefferson and enslaved people or domestic servants.
I wrote to Gayle immediately. Frankly, I was delighted to get her note. I looked her up. I sent her an email. “Hey. It’s Tess,” I wrote. “Let’s talk.”
A few weeks later, we did, long distance from California, where I live, to Virginia. Gayle’s story includes oral history, a mysterious Bible and surnames that match a particular branch of the Taylors. The 1870 census shows Gayle’s great-grandmother Rachael Robinson working as a servant in my great-great-great-grandfather’s household. We can’t know this, but it is highly probable that she was enslaved there earlier. Given what I do know about the way slavery was practiced in the Randolph-Jefferson-Taylor families, it is also highly possible that Gayle’s family had been handed down and passed along among my family for generations. Our blood may indeed be quite thick.
Gayle and I consulted Cinder Stanton, a leading Jefferson historian who has worked for decades to help reconstruct the genealogies of enslaved people at Monticello. Cinder’s hunch was this: That because of Gayle’s oral history, and because the census shows Gayle’s great-grandmother Rachael as unmarried but living with two children in great proximity to a man named Moncure Robinson Taylor, he was a likely father of Rachael’s children.
Gayle believes this, Cinder believes this. I think that whether it was Moncure or some other Taylor man, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Gayle and I are cousins. But because of the state of DNA testing, which is most accurate on male-only lines, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a DNA test that proves this.
Here is just one painful legacy of slavery that still sends tendrils out from the past. My family line is written down, legitimated. In letters housed at the University of Virginia library in Charlottesville, cousins gossip about one another for nearly two centuries. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for information about hundreds — even thousands of people — enslaved in the Randolph families over those generations, you are mostly out of luck.
Gayle and I confronted this together when we met with Cinder for lunch in Charlottesville last fall. The first thing I felt meeting Gayle was pleasure: She is warm, gracious, wry. And we have a lot in common: We have both worked as writers; we are interested in genealogy. But I also felt the strangeness of looking deeply into her eyes and face. Gayle is lovely — I’d be honored to look like her. Still, as we met, I thought about how I had not been taught to look into black faces for traces of family; the common thing that cousins do at reunions is not something I have much practice doing across racial lines.
We were both dressed up — it was a lunch meeting in the South after all — and Gayle brought photos of her ancestors, her grandmother and her great-grandmother. I fumbled clumsily with my iPhone, realizing that I had pictures only of my son. Gayle seemed disappointed. I realized that my family photos were traces, clues she’d been hoping for.
We talked about how Gayle could gather more evidence to support her long-held family story. I suggested she look at letters at the University of Virginia, sources I used for my research. “Are you looking for more proof?” I asked. I felt I saw her stiffen. I realized she thought I was doubting her.
For a moment, frustration hung in the air. I wanted there to be more evidence, more physical clues. But by trying to talk about written documents, I seemed to be insisting on a kind of proof Gayle might never find.
“You know,” Gayle said firmly. “This is my story. This is my family’s story. I don’t really need any more proof.”
I looked at her Bible and photographs. I felt a knot in myself. Finally I spoke. “I am sorry,” I said. “I do not have any more evidence to give you, but I also do not mean to sound as if I doubt you.”
What could I show Gayle, really? I told her about a church in Crozet, Va., on land that had been given by the Randolph family to some of their former slaves to start a church and school. “Descendants of original members still go there,” I said. “Maybe somebody knows something.”
But I can’t prove or disprove that her great-grandmother had children or a relationship with my great-great-grandfather’s brother. I can’t tell her what the contents of that relationship were. At one point, Gayle asked me if I was looking for absolution for what my family did, and we both agreed the word was imperfect. I think instead we are both looking for some present-tense reconciliation. We acknowledge our desire to feel connected to our shared history, and appreciate the fact that we can sit together, looking at the mystery of the past and trying to articulate what it means.
After lunch, Gayle and I took a trip to the Monticello graveyard. I unlocked the gate. I took her in to see the stones — Jefferson’s surely, but also John Charles Randolph Taylor’s, my great-great-grandfather Bennett’s, his brother Moncure’s. We stood listening to the wind through the tulip poplar. We agreed to stay in touch.
There is something radical in knowing Gayle. For what if we were to begin — all of us — to see each other as family? What if we looked into each other’s eyes with recognition? For now, Gayle and I make sporadic phone calls. She sent me pralines for my birthday. We exchanged cards at Christmas. Over Martin Luther King Day weekend, we met up for dinner in Washington. I don’t yet know what will happen, or all that we have to say to each other. We have only now come to the table. We are only now beginning to talk.
At Monticello, Gayle and I had a picture taken together just outside the graveyard’s locked gate. When we met, I couldn’t see the resemblance. But later, looking at the shot, I saw us both squinting up at the camera. When I look back, I see it: We are looking out with a mix of confusion and wonder. We are wearing the same quizzical face.