About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant's Search for Her Family's Lasting Legacy

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s conversation with Gayle Jessup White and Annette Gordon-Reed. Our topic is Ms. White’s new book, Reclamation, which explores her own journey to understand her family history as a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’s family.

Before we begin, I’d like to tell you about two programs coming up this month on our YouTube channel.

On Friday, November 19, at 1 p.m, Michael Burlingame will tell us about his new book, The Black Man’s President, and discuss Abraham Lincoln’s personal connections with Black people over the course of his career.

And on Wednesday, December 1, at 1 p.m., Fay Yarbrough will discuss her Choctaw Confederates, her new book about the Choctaw Nation’s role in the Civil War.

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A common question that National Archives research staff hear is “how do I find information about my family?” The desire to know more about where we came from and who our ancestors were drives a large number of people to explore history on the personal level.

Sometimes, that personal research intersects with history on the national level.

Gayle Jessup White heard her family’s stories and tracked down the evidence to verify them. After decades of research, she confirmed the passed-down family lore and established that they were direct descendants of both Thomas Jefferson and of Sally Hemings’s brother Peter Hemings.

Her remarkable story pulls together many threads of American history and demonstrates the complexities of race in America and the legacy of slavery. The more we look into the records, the more facets of history emerge. What had been familiar stories are seen in a new light, and our society is enriched by the multiple voices now making themselves heard.

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Gayle Jessup White is the Public Relations and Community Engagement Officer at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. A former award-winning television reporter and anchor, she started her career at the New York Times and has written and spoken extensively about her work at Monticello. She is a direct Jefferson descendant, and is also related to two well-documented families once enslaved at Monticello—the Hemingses and the Hubbards.

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard University, where she is also the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a professor of history in the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She is noted for changing scholarship on Thomas Jefferson regarding his relationship with Sally Hemings and her children. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Now let’s hear from Gayle Jessup White and Annette Gordon-Reed. Thank you for joining us today.