Annette Gordon-Reed took a different approach from traditional Jeffersonian scholars in examining the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. Annette said, Let’s not just cast aside what the black oral history claims about Hemings and Jefferson but examine it. Gordon-Reed undertook a meticulous examination of all of the historical record. She researched like a lawyer, as Annette is, preparing for a trial. She found much that confirmed that black oral history and nothing that contradicted it. On the other hand, she found much that was inconsistent with the white descendants’ versions.
When I read the draft, I thought it was going to be a bombshell because, at least to me, it presented an overwhelming case that the traditional Jefferson scholars were biased in their examination of this issue. Statements by whites were accepted with little examination or analysis; comparable statements by blacks were pushed away with no examination or analysis. For me, the real bombshell in her manuscript was that while historians surely think they are being as objective as possible, the Jefferson scholars had not been. Instead, they appeared biased, and worst of all biased on racial grounds. I had little doubt that the mainstream historians would not take kindly to what Gordon-Reed had written.
She had made such a compelling case, I did not think that her book could be simply ignored. I then undertook to read the manuscript not for literary merit or as a copy editor (there was not much for comment on those lines since it was very well written), but as if I were a defense counsel. I offered comments along the lines of, “If I were defending the historians, here is what I would say, here is what facts I would check.” I felt that if the historians could find almost any contradiction or provably false assertion, they would simply dismiss what was an important book. In fact, I only had a few comments because Annette had been thinking along these lines and had already been doing this kind of research. She was gracious in accepting my comments as I am sure she was with other readers of the draft.
Shortly after Gordon-Reed’s book was published, a DNA study proved that white descendants’ contention that nephews of Jefferson fathered Hemings children was not true and provided more confirmation that Jefferson himself was the father. This biological evidence plus various historical records made it almost certain that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children.
All this produced a sudden reversal from most traditional Jefferson scholars. Three years after Annette’s book, The Thomas Jefferson Foundation concluded that Jefferson in all likelihood was the father of Sally Hemings’s children as did the National Genealogical Society the next year. In a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, flip-flop, most historians soon came to the same conclusion. Within a few years, the mainstream historical “truth” had been turned on its head. Annette, with her book, was the spearhead for a major change in historical thinking, a change that was amazing because it took only a few years.
Annette went on to other pastures, and I have not seen her for a while. I don’t know her feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement, but when it burst onto the scene, I thought back to her first book. In her own way and ahead of the curve, she was demonstrating black lives matter. She had taught that we should take the testimony of blacks seriously. Examine it; analyze it; look at the contradictions, the consistencies, the confirmations, the corroborations. Only after all of that, judge it. Take seriously what blacks say, Annette taught me. I might, you might, find out it is the truth.