She couldn’t read or write and didn’t know her own age. By 1942 she was old and without a job. For decades, she’d been a domestic for a wealthy white family, the McKnews, in Washington, D.C., until she suffered a crippling stroke. The McKnew family put her out and ours took her in. For 20 years she was part of the Jessup family. Her name was Virginia, but everyone called her Aunt Peachy.
According to my older siblings, Aunt Peachy helped around the house, gave them pennies to purchase candy, and shared their secrets. I never knew her—she died in the early ’60s when I was a toddler. But her life had an everlasting impact on mine because it was Aunt Peachy, her nuclear family’s sole survivor, who carried tales from past generations to ours.
Her most remarkable and often repeated commentary would begin like this: “You’re descendants of Thomas Jefferson,” she would say. “I’m not related, but you are.” It’s that story, which could easily have died with Aunt Peachy, that put me on the path of discovering my family’s mysterious and tragic history.
Aunt Peachy, born Virginia Robinson in about 1870, was the half sister of my grandmother Eva Robinson Taylor, who died when my dad was 5 years old. Dad, almost 90 when he passed away in 2005, didn’t remember his mother and recalled very little about his five older sisters, all struck down within two years of each other by tuberculosis. Three girls died in their teens, and two were toddlers. Of the children who survived—two boys—Dad became Aunt Peachy’s favorite, and she became his only link to his mother’s past.
Eva and Virginia, the two half sisters, seemed a study in contrasts, according to the few who knew them. They didn’t look alike—one tall, the other short; one light, the other brown. While Eva was remembered as soft-spoken and cheerful, educated and refined, Virginia was described as illiterate and superstitious, kindly and childlike.
One of Aunt Peachy’s favorite stories, according to my oldest sister, Janice, was an explanation for pigs squealing during thunderstorms: They saw blood in the clouds, she said, and a man had extracted fluid from their eyes to prove it. No one believed that, but everyone believed her when she said Jefferson was our ancestor. Everyone took the word of an old woman who couldn’t read, write or do math, a woman who believed that pigs saw blood in clouds.
Now, more than 50 years after Aunt Peachy’s death, DNA evidence supports her claim. According to AncestryDNA, I share a connection with white descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha. The sturdiest link goes back to Jefferson’s daughter Martha. “There’s a very strong match,” says genealogist CeCe Moore, who is a genetic genealogical consultant for the PBS program Finding Your Roots (produced by The Root Editor-in-Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr.). Moore conducted the test and interpreted the results at Gates’ request. “This provides fairly strong evidence” for the oral history, says Moore.
Gates had seen a story in the New York Times written by a woman with whom I’d recently connected, Tess Taylor, a white Jefferson descendant, who turned out to be my cousin. I’d reached out to her after reading an online review of The Forage House, her poetry collection largely about the burden of being the descendant of a slaveholder who happened to write the Declaration of Independence. Taylor wrote about meeting me for the first time last year in Charlottesville, Va.
Tess and I are probably from the same family line, whose patriarch, J.C.R. Taylor, married Jefferson’s great-granddaughter Martha Jefferson Randolph. It was their son, Moncure Robinson Taylor, who likely had a relationship with the woman who is believed to be my great-grandmother Rachael Robinson.
The evidence of family ties is circumstantial: Rachael worked for the Taylor family. She and Moncure were about the same age, and she lived alone with her children near the Taylors. She never married. My grandmother sometimes used the name Taylor on official documents, such as baptismal and death certificates. She named one of her daughters “Cary,” a name shared among the Jefferson-Randolph-Taylor clan and the Robinsons.
There aren’t enough official documents to definitively make the case, but according to Jefferson scholar Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, what’s available is convincing. “The records are still fragmented, but the ones that have been found seem to leap together to confirm the oral history,” says Stanton, pre-eminent expert on Jefferson’s private life, author of two books on Monticello’s slaves and founder of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Getting Word oral history of Monticello’s slave descendants.
My presumptive great-grandparents, Rachel Robinson and Moncure Robinson Taylor, had several children, most of whom crossed the color line, as did Jefferson and Sally Hemings’. My grandmother did not. She moved to Washington and married Arthur Jessup on Dec. 1, 1901. They had seven children and lived comfortably and happily for many years, until tragedy destroyed their family. I’ve often thought that it was the senselessness and pain of that loss that compelled me to learn more about my grandmother, that discovering Eva’s mysterious past would mitigate my dad’s pain.
Or maybe I was simply intrigued to learn that we are Jefferson descendants and wanted to know the truth.
These discoveries have some historical value. According to Stanton, “It bears on the sexual exploitation of servants and women of color that didn’t end when slavery ended, it speaks to the division in families because of the color line, and it’s relevant to how history is transmitted in families and what is valuable enough to remember.”
There’s still more DNA discovery ahead. Moore is looking for more scientific evidence that Moncure Robinson Taylor was indeed my grandmother’s father. That means reaching out to his white descendants for their DNA samples. Tess Taylor’s DNA has already been sampled. Meanwhile, my siblings and I are satisfied that the DNA results we have support what Aunt Peachy always said: that we are Thomas Jefferson’s descendants. Not that we ever had any doubts.
Gayle Jessup White is a writer, educator and lecturer living in Richmond, Va.