In 1998, a story that had persisted in African-American oral history for some 200 years, but was dismissed by mainstream historians as rumor, gossip, or worse, was finally proved largely true with the help of DNA science. DNA tests, considered along with a fresh reading of the historical evidence, have led most historians and other experts on the matter to the conclusion that it's highly probable Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one, if not all, of the children of his slave Sally Hemings. The story struck like a thunderbolt from the past, forcing new public consideration of Jefferson, and America's mixed race past.
In "Jefferson's Blood," FRONTLINE correspondent Shelby Steele and producer Tom Lennon re-examine Jefferson's life, and piece together the little that can be known about Sally Hemings. Steele and Lennon also explore the repercussions of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship for the couple's modern-day descendants, many of whom are still attempting to find their place along America's blurred color line. "[Jefferson] spawned two lines of descendants--one legitimate, one not," Steele says in the documentary. "And this bastardized part of his family would be driven by a sense of incompleteness."
Moving back and forth between Jefferson's eighteenth-century world and the present day, FRONTLINE's "Jefferson's Blood" draws a complicated and compelling portrait of the contradictions in Thomas Jefferson's character, weighing the decisions he made in his private life with his public pronouncements on slavery and race-mixing. The documentary shows a Thomas Jefferson who we rarely confront--sharing Monticello with his white daughter and grandchildren while his unacknowledged mistress and his children by her worked in the same house as slaves.
"Jefferson's lifelong denial of his "shadow family" illustrates America's continuing struggle with issues of race and identity," says correspondent Steele. "Jefferson represents a classic white problem--how to live with an open evil [slavery] and yet maintain a sense of one's own decency." Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis and Monticello historian Lucia Cinder Stanton help the viewer to understand Jefferson's conflicted character and to place him in the context of his times.
Two of Sally Hemings's children and their families settled in Ohio--after being freed by an obscure codicil to Jefferson's will. Some lived as blacks and some chose to pass as white. "Jefferson's Blood" reveals how the racial ambiguity that colored their birth haunted succeeding generations of this family. FRONTLINE viewers meet the Cooper sisters, Jefferson-Hemings descendants. Raised as white, the sisters only recently learned of their mixed racial origin and connection to the late president. This discovery, however, left the Cooper Family deeply divided, with some members eager to learn more about their black heritage and others content to leave the past buried.
"This is a story of racial identity and its cruel exclusions, played out in one family over 200 years." says producer Lennon. "Does race make family impossible for Jefferson's descendants? Or can they comprise a family despite race?" In tracing 200 years of a family's secrets, denials, and painful legacies, FRONTLINE's "Jefferson's Blood" is a haunting reminder of the continuing, mysterious power of race in America.