Updated: Apr 6, 2022
"Fasten, your seatbelts, kids; it's gonna be a bumpy ride."
(With my sincerest apoligies to Bette Davis in "All About Eve" and devout fans of the film. ...)
This is a bit longer than I'd planned, but hopefully you, Dear Reader, will find it as interesting to read as it felt for me to write. — Phyllis
I was in high school when the miniseries “Roots” first aired on ABC – that would have been Channel 21, WPTA, in Fort Wayne where, at the time, they described themselves as "Still the One," borrowing part of a song from the Orleans hit of the same name. For a white girl growing up in a very white county, or moreover region, in northwest Ohio, it gave what was, in those days, a look at the stark reality of slavery in the United States. Even more, it was probably the main reason I started to become interested in genealogy and family history. Thank you, Alex Haley.
In history classes, the slave era was watered down to the point where there didn’t seem to be much to it. Men in boats captured slaves, with the help usually of men from other African tribes; dragged them to holding places and boarded them on ships bound for North America. We were shown the diagram of how to “store” the human cargo in the old to get the most people possible in a shipment.
We were taught about how cotton caused the spread of the “peculiar institution” throughout the South. I knew there were people who were forced to work in the fields; some seemed lucky enough to be house “servants.” It didn’t occur to me, nor was it really even mentioned, that many of these enslaved people, out of necessity, were taught trade, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, masonry, mechanics, and manual manufacturing skills, along with cooking, baking, making textiles, and sewing.
Researching Robert Jefferson’s life and times, even when trying to link his descendants back to the man he claimed to be his father – President Thomas Jefferson – over the past three or four years has been an amazing and eye-opening experience.
The system of slavery wasn’t just about getting the master’s crops planted and harvested, nor was it just about having people to do the household chores and other work needed to keep the plantation going.
The enslaved people are the ones who actually built those beautiful grand plantation homes and more urban mansions. They built the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and who knows how many other public and private buildings in Washington, D.C., and throughout the south – from Maryland to Florida, from Georgia to Texas, and from New Orleans to Northern Kentucky. Were these facts lost to history because they were simply enslaved and, therefore, no one felt that history needed to tell their stories and of their accomplishments? Or was it simply an “inconvenient truth” that most people really didn’t want historians to study, learn about, understand or even explain to the rest of society at the time and in the decades to come?
I imagine it’s both, on one level or another.
An Institution that dominated all aspects of American Society
Reading books such as “They Were Her Property,” by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, I have learned a lot of striking things – not just about how pervasive slavery was, but also how it worked and how deeply engrained it was in all facets of life. It wasn’t all about agricultural economics. It was about everyday economics. The business of trading, buying and selling enslaved “negros” was something every white man, woman, and child was taught – and something most black men, women and children would come to understand.
Children were taught to understand how their roles would take shape as being the master or mistress of their own slaves one day. Women were as involved in the business of slavery as a commercial operation as the men were, even though we’ve romanticized the idea that women – especially the Southern Belles – were spared the brutality and greed that came with all of it. Jones-Rogers’ painstaking research that dove deep into legal paperwork of the buying and selling of slaves, as well as into the newspaper advertising of those times in which slaves were offered for sale, or slave owners were seeking slaves to do particular work for them.
Women of “breeding age” were often coveted and considered more valuable than field laborers because the slaveowner family could use them as wet nurses for their own children – either because a white mother was unable to nurse, or simply just didn’t want to. That was something that never, ever would have occurred to me.
After the importation of enslaved people was banned in the U.S., “breeding” home-grown African Americans to be sold further south, especially when cotton became King, also became part of the commercial side of the institution. As disgusting as that sounds, to me, anyway, this also happened on a regular basis. Enslaved men would be forced to mate with enslaved women to produce children that would, sooner rather than later, be sold away from their mothers.
As much as society has tried to ignore the facts, white slave owners, managers or overseers, could, with impunity, force sex onto any enslaved woman they chose. These men could satisfy their “urges,” at best, or simply rape women to satisfy their lust for power and need for brutality as a way to “keep them in their place.”
And, of course, babies were born. We know, though many still want to deny it, that nearly all of our Founding Fathers were slave owners. We know that Thomas Jefferson had children with the enslaved Sally Hemings, whether she had wanted to or not. There are those that have tried to pose it as a romantic love story, but was it? Could it have been, if at the same time he was using other enslaved women for sex and having babies with them, as was the case with Millie Reddiford? And if Robert was, indeed, his son, were her other three sons also fathered by the president during his frequent visits to and through Charles Town when traveling to Berkeley Springs?
In her book, “The Other Madisons,” family griotte Bettye Kearse tells of her own research into her family’s oral history that they were descended from President James Madison. Clearly, Jefferson and Hemings wasn’t a fluke; it seems like it was an unspoken privilege among not only our Founding Fathers, but others as well. In her book, Jones-Rogers tells of a man who had impregnated an enslaved woman three times; not only did that woman have to deal with the trauma of rape and bearing the man’s children, she also was forced to serve as wet nurse to an infant born to him and his wife shortly after her third child by him had been born.
Everyone, on every level, knew what was going on and how the economic aspects of slavery worked. If a slaveowner had a debt to pay, he or she could put a slave or two – or more – up for sale or, worse, could use them as collateral for a loan to repay that debt, just as Edward Christian had done with Millie, Robert, and his three brothers back in 1817.
This Project has taught me so much
I will admit, as a white person who, sadly, has lived most of my life in almost completely white communities, when I first learned Robert’s story and began to do the DNA research with his descendants, he was, for me, a very one-dimensional character.
But I’ve come to believe that he was so much more than that. Not only was he trained as a carpenter and, clearly, was a very talented one, he was smart and had a good head for business. But also, something I really didn’t consider early on, he also had a lot of connections in the white world and, very likely, connections in the black community of abolitionists and others.
It’s not a coincidence that O.R. Singleton was the legislator who signed Robert’s freedom papers; Singleton was a friend and law colleague of John Thomas Dearing. It’s not a coincidence that he met Celia, because her master was Thomas Jefferson Catchings, a well-known and respected medical doctor who also served in the state Legislature along with Dearing and Singleton.
And it’s not a coincidence that these men were friends. They all knew each other most likely when they were children or neighbors living back in North Carolina and Georgia. Their families intermarried over and over again. When land was opened up for sale by the government, they all purchased land in the same places – from Alabama to Mississippi and later to Texas.
These planters’ families had been wealthy for generations; they had the power, the influence and the resources to buy plantations throughout the south. And they did.
I believe that it was commonly known by all in that social group that Robert was, indeed, a son of President Jefferson. It’s probably the main reason he was taught a trade and often served more as a companion and manservant to Asa and John Thomas Dearing, rather than being forced to work in the fields.
And if this is true, then I also have no doubt that Robert’s sojourn to Canada had to do with his being known to people like George DeBaptiste, who in the mid-1850s was working in Detroit getting fugitive slaves and freedmen into Canada. If the reputation of his paternity was known among whites, it also must have had to be known and understood by blacks, too.
Robert wasn’t formally educated and couldn’t read or write, according to the 1880 census when he lived in Indianapolis. But, he was smart and frugal. He learned how to deal with wealthy landowners and politicians from an early age, and he understood the business of business. He saved money when he was allowed to hire himself out; he had saved enough over the years, as well as during the year he was given to work on his own, to save about $130,000 in today’s money to buy his freedom and that of his family.
Clearly, history has overlooked everything about society that revolved around slavery as an institution and as a commercial business, including the fact that the enslaved, while not formally educated, could be just as intelligent and as savvy as the families who owned them when it came to business, attaining their own freedom, and accruing their own wealth.
I’ve always been horrified by the whole institution of slavery, and I’ve always loved meeting and knowing people of all colors, backgrounds, and ethnicities. But, especially during this latest movement called “Black Lives Matter,” I have come to the realization that I have been just as naive and unenlightened about race as my relative who once asked me, “But don’t they know you’re white?” when I told them I had been assigned a black roommate in college in 1981.
I am a product of that environment; there was no way for me to get away from those things my relatives believed about race – not until I was an adult and could live in other places.
But, I’m learning. I love that researching Robert Jefferson and his family, his times, and of course, the people he associated with 100-plus years before I was born, is some of the most fascinating work I’ve done as a genealogist and student of history. My hope is that the research I do for him and for his descendants will, someday, be meaningful and useful, particularly in the work that needs to be done for Americans to come to terms with our past and work to make the future so much better.
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