Thomas Jefferson and me

Thomas Jefferson and I share a common ancestor, Peter Jefferson, Thomas’s father.

The elder Jefferson begat both Thomas and his brother Field. Field begat Phoebe, who begat Winnifred, who married James Burke, who begat Melander Burke, who begat Martha Lassiter, who married Robert Britt, who begat Annie Mae, who married C.T. Warren, who begat Robert Burke Warren, Sr., who married Mary Lucchese, who begat me.

How do I know this? Ancestry.com. Found out in 2012.

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The Ancestry.com tree I constructed features many more citizens with whom I’d rather spend time than Jefferson: farmers, newspapermen, immigrant shoemakers, lawyers, small-business owners, soldiers, full-time moms, boarding-house operators, civil-rights activists. The only “illustrious” figure is a man who committed heinous crimes.

No one living had any idea of the Jefferson connection. I’m guessing the information was lost generations ago. Jefferson had been a wealthy Virginia landowner, and the Warrens were middle-class civil servants living in Durham, North Carolina. Actually progressive Democrats. They are long passed on, but I’m pretty sure they were clueless. Even if they had known, they would likely not have been impressed. Obviously, someone didn’t feel the information merited enshrining.

Nevertheless, the above “begat” paragraph reminds me how recent slavery actually was. It is very possible indeed that, in childhood and young adulthood, the Warrens of Durham – my paternal grandparents – crossed paths with emancipated slaves. People I once knew could themselves recollect former slaves living in the Jim-Crow South. That blows my mind more than it should.

Seen on paper, compressed into one short paragraph, it’s a reminder of a mindset that is clearly still with us in many ways, a painful reality, but necessary to acknowledge if we are to live in a truly just, multi-ethnic society.

How do I feel about sharing DNA with a man who, although he authored the Declaration of Independence and served as our third president, was not only a slave owner and thief of Native American land, but also a rapist who repeatedly impregnated the enslaved Sally Hemmings? I feel beyond awful, yes; emphatically not proud, yes; but also energized to keep the story moving ever further away from that entrenched legacy of white supremacy.

Despite the Ancestry.com data, I don’t feel any sense of familial kinship with Jefferson. DNA and data are not destiny, thank God. But I am a white man who has benefitted from what Jefferson helped create through white supremacy, regardless of my feelings. I will own that. What I do with it, and how I address the reality of it, the pain of it, is my choice. This story is not over yet. That’s the bad and the good news.

It’s worth noting that when my branch of the story began, I was growing up in the Deep South, under the wing of a single, ardently progressive mom working for racial justice in the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. The Civil Rights Act had only just been passed. I was attending desegregated schools, making music with and acting in plays alongside African-American kids, being taught by African-American teachers. It never occurred to me then, but surely I was one of many descendants of slave owners being taught by, and playing with, descendants of slaves every day in an atmosphere of equality. MLK’s dream made manifest in my little bubble. But sadly, not the end of the story.

Still, if there’s any truth to the phrase “rolling in his grave,” Jefferson and his ilk were no doubt doing just that. May they continue to roll themselves further into the past, while we carve out the future.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.

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