Jefferson experts, descendants of enslaved families to lead dialogue on race
FAIRFIELD — Andrew M. Davenport never would have predicted the turn his life would take after a simple DNA test.
Currently a writer and doctoral student at Georgetown University, and formerly a Fairfield University adjunct professor, Davenport was always interested in history and family stories. As a high school student at Fairfield College Preparatory School, he was encouraged by his teachers to pursue rigorous studies in the humanities and to always keep an open mind. It was a training that would later serve him well.
Davenport’s first year at Kenyon College in Ohio coincided with the year that Barack Obama was elected President (2008). Listening to classmates speak about whether or not America was “post-race” drove Davenport to a closer study of American history. He felt it was disingenuous to think issues of race and racial discrimination were no longer relevant, even though America had elected its first African-American president. He wanted to explore these perceptions further, and began to engage in deeper conversations with his family, including his grandmother who, as a child, had moved to New York from Virginia during the Great Migration. The Great Migration describes a time period in which roughly 6 million African Americans left rural communities in the South for urban areas in the North and West due to racial oppression and poor economic conditions (1915-1970).
“I grew up with my grandmother in the same house and had always heard stories about her grandmother, who I later learned had been born enslaved. I felt like my great-great grandmother was always in the house with us, even though she had long since died. The stories about her and other long-gone family members were very real. I think that’s how it started for me. Once I got older, had read quite a bit, and had honed some research skills, I wanted to explore the lives of the family members I had heard about.’”
It was around this time that Davenport’s mother gave him the gift of a DNA test for his birthday. He started to connect with relatives through the DNA testing process, soon learning he was a descendant of people enslaved by President Thomas Jefferson. He connected with Gayle Jessup White, a third cousin once removed. (Davenport’s great great grandfather, and White’s great grandmother, were siblings). Some of their ancestors were enslaved at Monticello, a plantation owned by Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia, and had been passed down as property to Jefferson’s heirs until the end of the Civil War.
Davenport and White will be sharing their story on Wednesday, February 12 at 8 p.m. at the Fairfield University Quick Center for the Arts. The event, “A Report from Monticello: Restoring African American Narratives to Thomas Jefferson’s Plantation” is the next in the Quick Center’s Open VISIONS Forum (OVF) series, moderated by Professor Philip Eliasoph, PhD, OVF founder and director. The dialogue will address racism, politics, power, and slavery, and is designed to both deepen our understanding of U.S. history and to serve as a model for all those courageous enough to examine their own personal histories.
Davenport and White are both deeply involved with Getting Word, an oral history project that began at Monticello in 1993 to preserve the histories of the African-American families at the plantation. Over 100 interviews with descendants of people enslaved by Jefferson have brought remarkable individuals out of the shadows of slavery and its legacies. Getting Word is chartered to tell the stories of people’s lives and achievements that were all but erased over the last 200 years.
White, who became Monticello’s first community engagement officer in 2016, is not only a direct Jefferson descendant, but is related to two well-documented families enslaved at Monticello - the Hemingses and the Hubbards. She has written and spoken extensively about her work at Monticello and about her family’s ties to Jefferson, his extended family and the enslaved community.
As Davenport wrote in his 2018 Smithsonian article, White made this lost history her mission, poring through photos and documents as a Jefferson Studies Fellow, pursuing DNA evidence, spending the night on the floor of the Monticello kitchen where one of her enslaved ancestors likely cooked, and singing tear-stained spirituals in the unmarked graveyard of the plantation’s black residents.
“Monticello is more than my employer. . .it’s my ancestral home,” said White, as interviewed by Davenport in the Smithsonian.
“Of course there’s a lot of pain. But I think we need to look at that pain without fear and face it head on. And not be ashamed or afraid or angry to explore history. And use this information to help us move forward ... to find common ground,” she explained.
After meeting White, Davenport began studying Jefferson in depth to learn more about the families that the Jeffersons had enslaved. He began to track down more of his relatives, including those who had passed for white, and peppered them with questions. “Some of them had been reluctant to talk about their experiences, but the passage of time made them more candid. They knew that I loved them, that I only wished to learn more,” Davenport explained.
“I remember one specific conversation I had with my great aunt, who was 95 years old at the time. She gave me a precious inheritance of family stories. At the end of our last conversation she said to me, ‘Go tell that story, baby. That great American story. Sock it to them, kid.’”
“When I asked my older relatives why I never knew about our ties to Monticello, they said, ‘Well, you never asked!’ I never would have known these stories if I simply hadn’t asked,” he said.
Davenport’s grandmother is now 90 years old, and never expected to return to Virginia after she left in the 1930s. “They left for a new world, they left for opportunity. Virginia was not a place they wanted to be in the 1930s,” explained Davenport. “But as a result of my conversations, she became reunited with some of her cousins. My grandmother returned to Virginia with me in 2014 for the first time since she left in 1936. She has returned to see her cousins, the family farm, and, in 2018, attended an emotional reunion at Monticello for descendants of African Americans who’d been enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. There has been an effort toward both healing and a transfer of generational knowledge,” he added.
“American identity is complicated and ever-changing. It’s a rich tapestry. I think about it as a crazy quilt experience. By being humble and listening to older people in your family and having respect for elders, you can learn who you are. We are each other. We need to sit at the elders’ feet and learn from their experiences.” [Crazy quilts employ patchwork, embellishments, unique fabrics and a free-flowing style.]
“It’s meant everything for my family to reunite. I was interested in stitching the families back together that had been torn apart by slavery and further removed by the Great Migration and, in some cases, racial passing. The twists and turns since the DNA test were so unexpected — I had a sense of my roots, but I never could have imagined that I could learn what occurred before emancipation."
Davenport is currently pursuing his PhD in U.S. history at Georgetown University and is busy with speaking engagements around the world. “People have shared their own stories and there’s been an exchange of information. I hope Gayle and I can continue to inspire others to tell their own stories,” Davenport concluded.
Tickets for the February 12 event are available through the Quick Center Box Office at www.quickcenter.com or 203-254-4010.