Gayle Jessup White’s journey is an American journey. An award-winning broadcast journalist and the current Public Relations and Community Engagement Officer at Monticello, White’s life has been marked by the gradual discovery of her roots in the much larger story of the country. It’s a journey she chronicles in her new book Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy.
White was born Gayle Jessup, daughter of a comfortable African-American family in a comfortable part of Washington, D.C. In her recollections of D.C. in the 1950s, she says race was only peripherally relevant. “I still remember an afternoon standing on our sunlit back porch and feeling like the luckiest little girl in the best family, the best city, and the best country in the whole world.” (5)
Her family, especially her parents and older sister, Jan, gave her a strong sense of belonging and self-worth. It took years for a different awareness to emerge, something that crystallized for her in an encounter in a Las Vegas hotel pool when a newfound white friend was forbidden by her mother from continuing to play with her. “I will never forget how the [mother] made me feel—alone, abandoned, and a little sad. Until Las Vegas, I thought race indicated color, not opportunity and privilege.” (25)
An overheard comment by her sister began Gayle’s lifelong quest to understand her roots. Jan was much older than Gayle and was relating a story to their father about shushing the table at a diplomatic party by sharing “So I told them, well, I’m descended from Thomas Jefferson.” (31) It was a family story Gayle hadn’t heard and so she began to explore her roots, stretching back through her paternal grandmother whom she had never known.
What Jessup White uncovers in discovering that she was, indeed, related to Thomas Jefferson and the Hemings family makes up the substance of this book. White finds a fascinating landscape of ancestors, some of whom made heartbreaking decisions with long ripples, like the great-aunt who decided to live as white woman, cutting off ties with her family to tragic consequence. The search eventually led her to Monticello itself where she is now the most prominent of the Jefferson descendants on staff.
Jessup White’s journey coincided with a similar reckoning that the estate was going through. With conclusive revelations of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his enslaved servants, in the 1990s, Monticello began a bumpy process of trying to tell a more complete story of the man who wrote of the fundamental equality of all in the Declaration of Independence but who continued to play the role of a slaveowner until the day of his death in 1826.
Monticello was just making early strides to connect with descendants of the enslaved families when Gayle arrived with a thirst to know more. When Jessup White finally came on board, she took on big projects to help tell the Sally Hemings story and to move the organization in new directions.
Jessup White’s book is honest, illuminating, and tough where it needs to be. But Jessup White writes with a sense of purpose and uplift. Thomas Jefferson stays squarely in the background here, and that’s as it should be. What we get instead is the remarkable story of a sprawling American family and the journey of one shining part of it.
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