Saturday, November 01, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 11-6-08
Jeff Gill

Presidential Candidates in Black and White

One of the interesting challenges of writing a newspaper column these days is that you get to write material days (sometimes weeks) before a print run, while the internet never sleeps.

So my writing of this piece precedes the election itself, but will necessarily appear after the results have been splashed far and abroad. What to do?

Actually, given the historic role of the Obama campaign, let alone a likely victory, my thoughts have tended towards putting his story in a broader, but also Ohio context.

One of the aspects most remarked upon about the Barack Obama candidacy is the fact of his African background, with a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, and matured in Illinois by way of Columbia and Harvard.

In fact, Barack Obama would not be the first President of the United States to carry some African heritage. Surprised? Well, this gets to be a complicated and obscured history on many levels.

Quite a few U.S. Presidents have had African ancestry claimed for them, but mostly it’s been political opponents making the claims, hoping to rally racism and xenophobia against the other side.

Ohio’s own Warren Harding was said to have African American ancestors. His usual response was along the lines of “who knows what my ancestors were up to?” makes you think he wasn’t quite saying no to a claim that was political poison in the 1920’s. Modern genealogical research leaves the question open, which is as good as a “Yes” for me looking at the 19th century.

Saying that Harding was the great-grandson of a black woman was supportable enough for the New York Times to print in April, anyhow. Less proveable is the persistent claim that Andrew Jackson, namesake of Licking County’s Jacksontown, was as much as one-quarter black, and that an older brother was sold as a slave until redeemed by family. These stories trace back to a common and unsubstantiated source from a political opponent, but intriguingly they can’t be entirely dismissed, either.

Dwight Eisenhower was quietly but persistently said to be one-quarter black, perhaps largely based on two points about his mother: she was a committed Jehovah’s Witness to the end of her life, and her younger portraits do look quite African American, if in fact such a thing can be usefully said.

For an Ohio connection to the presidency and African Americans, the most interesting is to Thomas Jefferson.

As Annette Gordon-Reed, in her new book “The Hemingses of Monticello” points out, not only is Sarah, or “Sally” Hemings most likely the effective “second wife” of our third president, she is almost certainly mother of six or possibly seven of his children.

From 1790 to 1808, the births of each of Sally Hemings’ children match a documentable presence of Thomas Jefferson nine months before, where no other male in his line would fit as precisely – and DNA test results show that the narrative of Eston Hemings in the Pike County Republican of 1873 is supported by scientific data.

Not only do Eston and Madison Hemings end up in Ohio (though Eston continues on to Wisconsin before his death, to put more distance between himself and slavery), but Thomas Woodson, whose family maintains by oral tradition that he is the first son born to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings out of their Paris sojourn in 1790, is the founder of a settlement of free blacks in Milton Township, Jackson County, Ohio.

Madison Hemings’ son becomes the first African American elected to public office on the West Coast, becoming a California State Assemblyman in 1918, though born in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1879.

Sally Hemings’ last resting place is to this date unknown, as she was a 56 year “old woman worth $50” according to probate appraisal in 1826, after the death of Jefferson on July 4. He could not see his way clear to freeing his slaves upon his death, as did George Washington, but his daughter Martha gave Sally “her time,” a form of freedom that allowed a former slave to remain in the area. But did she?

Scholars believe that Sally Hemings died in 1835 in Charlottesville, VA, down the hill from Monticello where she lived from her childhood, to nursing her half-sister Martha Wayles Jefferson through her death in 1782 when she was nine, through the trip to Paris at 14 or 15, the two years overseas, and then the return to Monticello which she never left . . . until Jefferson’s death.

Is it possible that like many widows of that era or even today, Sally Hemings went to live with one of her more prosperous sons? The gravesites of Thomas Woodson in Jackson County, Ohio, or Eston Hemings in Ross County, Ohio, are not well marked or fully recorded. Rather than beneath a parking lot in downtown Charlottesville, VA, could the “second wife” of our third president be buried in southern Ohio? It is quite possible.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about anything other than the election at

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