A Black And White Case

Illustration by Ed Tuckwell, Folio

Jefferson descendent Nick Woods and his family at the gravesite in Crown Hill Cemetery on the day of the cancelled exhumation.
 
It would have been a perfect day to exhume a body. The cloudless sky above Indianapolis was deep blue, the air warm, the humidity low, and a light westerly breeze rustled through the leaves of trees standing watch over the dead at Crown Hill Cemetery. But timing is everything, and it turned out that my companions—Nick Woods, his daughter, and his granddaughter—had traveled here from Chicago for nothing. The long-awaited exhumation of their relative Robert Jefferson was not going to happen.
 

Nick is a direct descendant of Robert and his wife, Celia, both born enslaved in the early 1800s. The family’s oral history tells that Robert was the son of an enslaved woman in Virginia named Milley Reddiford (likely Rutherford) and our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. A talented carpenter, Robert purchased the family’s freedom in 1852 and brought them north to Indiana, eventually settling in Indianapolis, where he lived until his death in 1882.

I arrived in Indianapolis on the day before the scheduled exhumation. The event had been arranged with Crown Hill with help from Rodney Nay, a Madison, Indiana, funeral director and county coroner, who guided me and the descendants through the process. We had the required permit from the state health department allowing for Robert’s disinterment, along with letters of consent from Woods and several of his Jefferson-line cousins.

By sheer coincidence, the cemetery’s administrators were dealing with another exhumation request that had the potential to create a full-blown media circus. The body of John Dillinger, also interred at Crown Hill, was to be exhumed September 16 at the request of a nephew, Michael Thompson. Thompson, working with the History Channel, was hoping to document what he believed to be true about his infamous uncle—that the gangster had not died the night he was shot by police in Chicago. He believed they would prove that, if there was a body entombed there, it wasn’t Dillinger’s.

But on that August day, Nick and I both were angry, a bit confused, and deeply disappointed. Our only consolation from the administrator was a guided tour of the historic cemetery that led us to the section where Robert and Celia are interred. As a journalist, historian, and genealogist, I was thrilled to stand on the spot where they lay at rest but saddened to find there was no marker for them. I am of no relation to Robert, Celia, or any of their descendants, but three years earlier, when I became active with a Madison–area historical preservation group, I learned about Robert’s story, and it quickly became my quest to prove what previous research hadn’t: that he was Thomas Jefferson’s son. I also wanted to confirm that Lucy and Georgiana Jefferson, who attended Eleutherian College in Lancaster, Indiana, in the 1850s, were, in fact, Jefferson’s granddaughters.

In 2016, with a grant from the Jefferson County Genealogical Society, I purchased and sent AncestryDNA test kits to Woods and six other living descendants of Robert and Celia. By then I had taken several courses on using consumer DNA testing in genealogical research, and I wanted to see if the DNA could, finally, prove Robert’s story, which has been public knowledge for more than a century but never formally recognized. Ancestry and most of the other companies that provide consumer DNA testing rely on autosomal DNA, which is comprised of the 22 pairs of chromosomes found in the nucleus of nearly every cell in our bodies. The science detects genetic relationships based on segments of chromosomes common to both the tester and another person. Family relationships are determined by the total amount of DNA shared between two people, which is measured in centi-Morgans (cM). Parents and children, as well as full siblings, share half of their DNA at about 3,500 cM. With each generation, the amount shared is reduced by half, meaning we inherit 25 percent of our DNA from each of our grandparents, 12.5 percent from great-grandparents, 6.25 percent from great-great-grandparents, and so on.

Genetic genealogy research, like any kind of research, is much like detective work. To find the information I’m looking for, I have to search out leads and then accumulate evidence to show how someone’s DNA matches are related. The goal is to find the “most recent common ancestor” or ancestral couple between a DNA tester and one of his or her matches. It is tedious work that often involves locating matches who keep their DNA tests and Ancestry accounts private and their identities secret—many have only usernames and do not use their real names. I also look for matches whose accounts include their own family trees, particularly trees that appear to be fairly well documented. This can take hours, days, or even weeks for each match. Over the past six years, I have found matches for each of Robert Jefferson’s descendants that connect them back to common ancestors, including Thomas Jefferson’s daughters with his wife, Martha Wayles; Sally Hemings’s children, known to be fathered by Jefferson; John Wayles, the father of both Martha Jefferson (nee Wayles) and Sally Hemings; and the president’s maternal relatives in the Randolph family.

These connections don’t definitively prove that Woods and his cousins are direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson, but according to genetic genealogy pioneer Blaine Bettinger, who has taught several advanced DNA courses I have taken, DNA testing can provide strong evidence to disprove such hypothetical relationships. If my research never found DNA matches that connected Robert’s descendants to Thomas Jefferson and his related families, then it would be fairly clear that Robert’s claim was false, and the project would have ended there. I have found those connections, and obtaining Robert’s autosomal DNA could provide additional matches to confirm them.

At the very least, I would hope the exhumation might yield Y-DNA, which is passed from father to son. If we find his Y-DNA matches that used to connect Jefferson with descendants of Sally Hemings’s children, that would be additional confirmation of the hypothesis. A bonus would be to obtain Robert’s mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from a mother to her children, which would tell us more about his mother, Milley.

Elutherian College, which enrolled Black students in the mid-1800s, may have attracted the Jeffersons to Indiana.

ALMOST ALL I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT Robert Jefferson comes from researching every aspect of an 1879 Indianapolis Journal article titled “Blood Will Tell. A Dark-Skinned Son of Thomas Jefferson Discovered in Indianapolis.” The reporter heard about Robert from William C. Thompson, a highly respected local physician who employed Robert in some unknown capacity. Thompson gave the reporter Robert’s address: 185 Minerva Street, on what is now the west edge of downtown. It was erased with the rest of the Black neighborhood during the 1970s expansion of the IUPUI campus.

“Large evergreen trees cast their shadows on the front of the house, a two-story frame, simple in architecture and neat in appearance,” the reporter wrote of Robert’s home. Robert answered the door, and the reporter described him as “a colored man rather below the medium height, apparently 60 years of age, a dark mulatto in color, and with hair straight and black.”

In the fall of 2020, I shifted my focus from the DNA research and took a deep dive into the leads from the 1879 article, tracing Robert’s life from the northern Shenandoah Valley to Madison (see the timeline, right). The main goal first, however, was to identify Edward Christian, Robert’s mother’s enslaver and an attorney who served as deputy county clerk for Jefferson County, Virginia (now West Virginia). A 2003 column published in The Spirit of Jefferson and Farmer’s Advocate, Charles Town’s newspaper, included a reprint of a letter circulated in July 1879, several weeks after the Indianapolis Journal article. In it, old-timers had confirmed that Thomas Jefferson, while president, frequently visited to Charles Town and would stay as a guest in the home of Edward Christian.

When Christian defaulted on a loan in 1818, he sold Milley and her four sons to settle the debt. I traced Robert’s life afterward to a planter named Asa Dearing in Georgia. As Dearing’s personal servant, Robert was introduced to many prominent men, including senators and leaders of the Confederate States of America. Dearing died in 1826, and Robert was inherited by a nephew, John Thomas Dearing, who was just 8 years old. By 1835, the younger Dearing had moved to a plantation near Canton, Mississippi, and Robert went with him. Dearing was friends with Thomas J. Catchings, a physician who enslaved Celia, Robert’s future wife. His daughter later mentioned Robert and Celia in a geneaology report, describing him as once being owned by Thomas Jefferson—recognition of their connection, if not paternity.

It wasn’t for 13 more years that Robert was able to buy his family’s freedom. In 1852, he paid Catchings $1,500 to free Celia and their two daughters and an additional $2,700 for his own independence. Perhaps his carpentry skills were the reason for such a high price, or perhaps it was his status as a president’s son. Either way, that amount, which equals just over $91,000 in today’s economy, was almost double the average amount paid for enslaved Black men half his age. The amount also seems to be a clue to his status among slaveowners.

ELEUTHERIAN COLLEGE IN southeastern Indiana established in 1848 to educate children regardless of race or gender. It advertised in newspapers circulating in cities along the Mississippi River and into the deep South. Robert was illiterate, but he may have heard about the school from free Blacks who worked the riverboats, or, perhaps, abolitionists he may have met during his travels with his enslavers. As a carpenter for hire, he would have had the opportunity to interact with many people from all walks of life. Why he decided to move the family to Indiana is unclear, but in 1853, he and Celia enrolled Lucy and Georgiana at Eleutherian.

Perhaps Robert was an associate within the secret network of the Underground Railroad—Dr. Thompson’s father-in-law knew Levi Coffin, one of the most prolific conductors of the network in Indiana and Ohio. Robert may have helped fugitives from Southern slavery reach freedom in the northern United States and Canada before and after his own emancipation. In the Journal article, Robert said he spent part of the first two years of his life as a free man living in Canada. Did he lead others there—perhaps even Milley and his siblings?

There is still much research to be done.

Though it’s difficult to admit, my early vision of Robert Jefferson was somewhat biased: I saw him only as an uneducated and illiterate former slave. I didn’t expect him to be an interesting person, like his daughters, who were not just well-educated, but married to successful businessmen and impressed upon their children the importance of education. I felt he was someone I would never be able to know.

But by digging deep into the Journal article and learning more about the people with whom Robert associated, as well as those who had enslaved him, the whole man began to emerge from the misty, almost formless vision I had of him at the start. The more I learn about him, the more I want to know. He has established residence in my head, and I feel compelled—even obligated—to continue this research as a tribute to him and his descendants, who have become my good friends.

ROBERT AND CELIA’S great-great granddaughter, Emily Brin Roberson, grew up knowing her family’s oral history of their connection to Thomas Jefferson. “It was just a weird fact about our family,” the San Francisco native said during an interview at her home in July. “Nobody cared. It was just a thing. I mean, my father kind of cared, because he got a kick out of it. There was no reason to doubt it. Why would anybody make that up, right?”

The 64-year-old is the daughter of the late Mason A. Roberson (a great-grandson of Robert and Celia) and the late Doris Brin Walker. Doris was a highly respected attorney and a member of the legal team that defended Angela Davis, who was acquitted of federal charges relating to her involvement with the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. Mason, who was Black, played football in college and went into journalism, starting a newspaper in San Francisco. Emily is an accomplished botanist with degrees from Harvard, University of California–Davis, and UC–Berkeley. Today she is the director of the Native Plant Society of the United States.

Her cousin, William Neff Roberson, known to friends and family as Bill, never heard his father, William Artrudoe Roberson, speak of their relationship to the third president. In fact, the 84-year-old retired Los Angeles attorney didn’t really believe the story, even after he found a photocopy of that 1879 Indianapolis Journal article among his father’s papers.

“To me, it was a ‘maybe,’” Bill says. “I’m not a shrinking violet. I’ve seen a lot of life. I know it’s not just possible, but it’s quite probable. Frankly, [a man like that would] have political friends who would make sure all [his] needs were taken care of. I’m sure the president had that kind of friend in Charles Town.”

Bill’s AncestryDNA test shows that he inherited 13 percent of his DNA from ancestors who once lived in Nigeria and another 1 percent from ancestors who had lived in Benin and Togo. The evidence was clear: One of his direct, yet distant, ancestors had been of African descent. The African ancestry was somewhat of a surprise, but Bill said he accepts it. “I’m comfortable in my skin. It comes together now in a way that I have certainty, as near as possible, and I’m comfortable with it. I especially like it because I’ve always been a fan of Thomas Jefferson.”

Nick and Steve Woods, sons of Bill’s first cousin Frances, said they were about 8 or 9 years old when they first heard of their connection to Jefferson. “I think I found it interesting. You know, you’re in school, learning a lot of history, and for me it was like, ‘Oh, OK. That’s weird,’” Steve recalls. “We took our family history at face value.” Like his cousin Emily, he reasoned, “Why would you make something like that up? This was 30 years before DNA [testing became available commercially], so we couldn’t really do anything but take their word for it.”

Nick’s grandfather, Francis Rassieur Roberson, was an architect for the National Park Service. Known by his middle name, pronounced “rasher,” he designed Mount Rushmore’s visitors center, famous from the Hitchcock film North by Northwest, and helped design a portion of the Gateway Arch, built in the 1960s as a tribute to Thomas Jefferson’s role in America’s westward expansion.

Francis Jefferson Roberson, Rasher’s father and Bill’s great-grandfather, also was an architect who designed and built some of St. Louis’s most famous structures. He traveled the world studying architecture in South America, India, Europe, and Africa, and gave a series of travelogues and architecture-related lectures on the topic at Purdue University in 1908 and 1909.

Like Emily’s father, Mason, who was a voracious reader and conversant in Latin, cousin Steve Woods has read thousands of books, according to brother Nick. The importance of education for Robert and Celia’s descendants seems to have remained central to their families, from the time Lucy and Georgiana attended Eleutherian College in a rural Southern Indiana town to their second- and third-great-grandchildren, who have become attorneys, architects, engineers, information-technology specialists, and scientists.

ROBERT AND CELIA’S descendants may never receive the same status at Sally Hemings’s descendents, who were recognized by the Monticello Association in 1998 after DNA confirmed that Jefferson fathered children with her. But to Indianapolis historian Eunice Trotter, that doesn’t mean Robert’s story isn’t worth telling.

The director of the Black Heritage Preservation Program for Indiana Landmarks, Trotter sees Robert’s life as significant regardless of who his father was. In researching her own family for her book, Black in Indiana, Trotter discovered that one of her great-grandfathers had invented a horseshoe that became very popular in Indiana, and that her third-great-grandfather handled horses for William Henry Harrison and was at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

“Particularly if you are from the area you’re researching, don’t be surprised if you find an intersection of American or Indiana history with your own personal family,” Trotter says. “Every single one of those stories—the Robert Jefferson story or my own ancestor’s, the Mary Clark story—are part of American and Indiana history, not just Black history. They aren’t isolated bits of history that had no impact on anyone else. So, to not know these stories, to not have any understanding of these stories, is to not know the full history of Indiana.” Or of America.

In her role at Indiana Landmarks, Trotter is working to increase the amount of research done and stories written about Blacks in Indianapolis and elsewhere in Indiana with a goal of getting more Blacks involved in preserving their oral history. “It’s so critical,” she says. “My philosophy is what my sister always says—‘If it ain’t in writing, it ain’t.’ You can’t preserve and remember what you don’t know exists,” Trotter says.

And it’s impossible not to see parallels between things that happened long ago and what’s happening today around systemic racism and police intimidation. Trotter was struck by the fact that Robert Jefferson carried his freedom papers with him until his death in 1882—almost 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the United States. “Can you imagine that? As the mother of a Black son and four Black grandsons, I can,” she says. “I know the fear remains today. It’s almost in our DNA. For Robert Jefferson, those papers were his ID to prove that he was legitimate and free.”

Exhuming Robert’s body remains a priority, and his descendants and I plan another attempt to retrieve his DNA for further evidence of his paternity. But, as someone who stumbled into the role of Robert Jefferson’s biographer, I find Trotter’s opinion—that his life story is significant on its own—very meaningful. It takes all of us to weave the colorful fabric of America. In the end, we are all a part of history, from the most local perspective to the most national one.


FOOTSTEPS TO FREEDOM

HOW ROBERT JEFFERSON BECAME A HOOSIER AS A FREE MAN.

1803 >> Robert is born in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), to Milley Red-diford, enslaved by Thomas Jefferson’s close friends. It’s believed that the president fathered the child on a visit.

1820 >> Robert is purchased by Asa Dearing of Wilkes Co., Georgia.

1835 >> Robert likely moves with John T. Dearing, Asa’s nephew, to his plantation in Canton, Mississippi.

1852 >> Robert purchases freedom for his family and they move to Madison, Indiana. His daughters attend a progressive school nearby.

1860 >> The family is living in Ward 4 of Indianapolis.

1879 >> Robert, a carpenter, lives on Minerva Street (now the IUPUI campus) and is interviewed by the Indianapolis Journal about his relation to Thomas Jefferson.

1882 >> Robert dies at daughter Lucy’s home in Oberlin, Ohio, at the age of 79 and is laid to rest at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. Celia is reinterred from St. Louis to Crown Hill.