Skip to main content

Remembering the Randolphs

A Genealogy in Thirteen Meditations

ISSUE:  Summer 2013

Private family graveyard at Monticello. Charlottesville, VA. (iStockPhoto / Gene Krebs)


Trying to understand them, or something about the way they understood themselves, I looked again at H. J. Eckenrode’s The Randolphs: The Story of a Virginia Family, although this is less a history than a study in the rhetoric of mythmaking. The book’s cover shows a gallant-​looking man on horseback—​no one in particular, it seems, just a generic aristocrat. This aura of aristocracy, thrall of noble-​bloodedness passed across centuries, lets us know that we do not approach “family” writ small—​a word we use to describe parents and siblings and beloveds—​but “family” writ large, the institution which raises up bloodline as a way of passing on property, which crafts a nexus of seemingly private relationships in order to transfer what amounts to public power.

And so this version of the family story begins with the first American Randolph, William I, who arrived from England in 1674 to settle a coastal land grant near what is now Norfolk, Virginia. Over the next decade he spread out and appropriated land that was called, rather un-​regally, Turkey Island. The colonial dynasty-​maker is part of two contradictory but equally potent founding myths. In one, William Randolph comes from nowhere, has no money, arrives with only an axe to swing. In the other, Randolph is well-​connected, the son of a family that had been at court for generations. Both myths are used to make Randolph emblematic of a certain original Old Dominion. Eckenrode writes: “These were men who had fought on the royal side in the Civil War in England and now sought refuge in Virginia. They were known as ‘Cavaliers,’ and they gave Virginia a social atmosphere it never subsequently lost.” William is praised for shrewdly accomplishing so much, but, extolling bloodline, Eckenrode implies more than once that his essential breeding gave William I a knee up on his clamber toward greatness. The myths sit in uneasy tension: William Randolph may have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, but it also seems that his boots were better positioned than everyone else’s.

The book, not unlike certain parts of American rhetoric, is full of such contradictions. Whatever their origins in England, in America the Randolph family adored records, with several of them crafting elaborate family trees. Eckenrode writes that a later Randolph descendant, “Thomas Jefferson, who was not given to romancing, stated that the Randolphs could trace far back in England and Scotland,” where Randolphs had been named William or Thomas for generations. It may be pointed out that Thomas Jefferson worked his entire life to create the first country where bloodlines would not matter, or would at least not matter as much. But his extended family certainly kept track of their inheritances, as if anxious to keep a trail to the old world, to be sure they could map themselves back into English court life if necessary. Whatever Jefferson may have thought of his own ancestors or the uses of ancestry in general, Eckenrode devotes an entire chapter to pre-​American Randolphs, exploring Scottish and English Randolphs in battles that date to the 1300s. Eckenrode buttresses the Randolphs on the firsts of time. Self-​made but also seemingly predestined, their legend begins. 


Eckenrode’s book—​with its odd combination of hope and pomposity—​was published in 1946, just after my Granddaddy Leigh returned from World War II, where he fought in the South Pacific. Eckenrode, perhaps himself shaken by generations of world wars, is full of nostalgia for a finer world. “It was the acme of the age of chivalry,” he writes of the early Randolphs. “There were no firearms then, but the cloth-​yard arrows rattled against the knights in their plate armor. Horsemen rode against each other with lances as in Ivanhoe. It was the very height of the Middle Ages, when knights wore their ladies’ favors on their helmets and went out to tilt in their honor.” An early Scottish Randolph fought off the fourteenth-​century English outside a stony castle. Another early Randolph defended Mary Queen of Scots, but then reversed course, effectively coming down on both sides of the story. After this, Eckenrode’s history becomes murky. A Protestant Randolph arrives in Queen Elizabeth’s court. Another Thomas, a court-​poet and playwright, becomes the adopted son of Ben Jonson. This Thomas Randolph dies young, apparently as a result of something I once saw referred to as his “irregular” poetic lifestyle.

Here, mists of time merge with something like real history. Thomas Randolph was half-​uncle to William Randolph who arrived in Virginia in the late seventeenth century. Whether self-​made or well-​connected, Randolph was ready to build. It seems that he curried favor with the king, became friends with former court-​wit and then governor Lord Berkeley, and got in on the Empire’s ground floor. Whatever axes or bootstraps Randolph had, they were the ones he needed. He had virgin hardwood to cut: He acquired 591 acres in Powhatan territory, an amount he enlarged to more than 10,000 acres in the next four decades. He married the daughter of a baronet, who (I have seen written) was also a descendant of Lady Godiva. He began paying for the importation of English laborers in exchange for fifty acres of land per imported head. In short order, he amassed a large tobacco plantation. From within the Tidewater region, he also became what some biographies—​far too politely—​describe as a “merchant, shipowner, and commercial agent.” Randolph became one of the largest slaveholders of his generation. 


I first encountered William Randolph in 1987.

I was in the fifth grade, preparing a presentation on where our families were from for my class in the El Cerrito, California, public schools. Each presentation had to be a few minutes long—​we could bring pictures if we wanted. 

My parents met as history graduate students in India. They are interested in the action and aftermath of empire. They like genealogy. They were happy to tell me something about the lives of their families before California. My mother’s father’s family were Massachusetts Puritans. My father’s family came from Virginia, a place that already fascinated me—​in part because my father would change voice and posture talking into the phone when his relatives called. He seemed more circumspect, more languorous. He said y’all. He drawled. 

My father likes research, so when I told him about my presentation, he helped me to find Eckenrode. We also looked up another book by a man named Jonathan Daniels. Written in 1972 and called The Randolphs of Virginia, its book jacket, with similar largesse, pronounced the Randolphs “America’s Foremost Family.” Its paintings of various Randolphs throughout history fascinated me. People had names like Isham or John Randolph of Roanoke or Somebody Or Other of Dungeness. Around that time I encountered the flame-​haired portrait of Jefferson as a young, westward-​looking statesman—​painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1791, just about when Jefferson would have been in Paris. In the Daniels, Beverley Randolph was depicted around the time he would have attended William and Mary, holding onto his three-​pointed hat. Apparently, on occasion, he enjoyed imbibing at taverns near the colony’s first fraternity house. 

In the books I learned how the Randolphs claimed connection not only to John Rolfe and Pocahontas but how they had collectively governed Virginia for 200 years, their cadre of distant cousins forming generations of governors, judges, lawyers, attorneys general. Passing on the fortunes he had acquired, William Randolph I helped his children get land abutting his, and soon there were eleven adjacent Randolph plantations stretching from what is now Norfolk to Richmond, eventually forming a kind of eighteenth-​century Virginian monopoly. When researching the Randolphs it is common to come across these early vignettes: The Marquis de Chastellux, a French traveler to Virginia in the 1780s, wrote that others should “be prepared to hear the name Randolph frequently,” recognizing the Randolphs as “one of the most numerous and wealthiest” of the colony’s first families. An English traveler visiting Virginia said that the Randolphs are “so numerous that they are obliged, like the clans of Scotland, to be distinguished by their place of residence.” This clannish power continued for nearly two centuries. When Herman Melville wrote Moby-​Dick in 1851, the Randolphs made a cameo as the quintessential “old established family in the land”—​a stark contrast to the provisionally named Ishmael, the anonymous vagrant seeking his fortunes at sea. 


Thomas Jefferson’s mother was Jane Randolph, the granddaughter of the William who had curried favor with the Berkeleys. I already knew, at age ten, that I was related to Mr. Jefferson. I had found that out earlier. I knew that Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence. I knew that he was on the two-​dollar bill, and I had one stashed away. Jefferson had red hair, just like my father; Jefferson danced well and was good at the fiddle. I knew he was not only one of the fathers of our country but the father of my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s mother. But this project was my first attempt to contextualize Jefferson, to think about the places from which he sprang.

Here was the milieu, the tribe, by implication my own. Mine. On the gold shag rug in the living room I pondered this. The “my” seemed refracted, a gross distortion, like finding one’s reflection in an eighteenth-​century fun-​house mirror. I felt an alternately ginger and greedy fascination, especially with pictures, which seemed to bind me into an elaborate literary fairy tale. In family books like these, sad-​eyed ladies in ruffled dresses posed in profile, big houses loomed in watercolors, and hand-​drawn maps resembled the kinds of maps that could lead to treasure. I inspected these carefully. In one painting, William Randolph II, jowly and bewigged, turns sideways. His creamy cheeks rise above an elaborate white collar. His portraitist, John Wollaston, has captured what seems to be a man of many dimensions: His chin is both cleft and double. Beneath embroidered boutonnières, lacy cuffs swirl. The dome-​like swell of his waistcoat fills the picture’s western geography. Against that dark coastline, delicate fingers close around a white document. I do not know, but I have always assumed that this was a land grant, a claim to the loosely packed, pigweed-​covered Chesapeake sandbar that then still held Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon. William Randolph II poses with papers. The documents signify his inheritance, his favor with some king. He stares into history. He is an enigma, a Royalist. He is legitimate. 

“He’s fat,” I told my dad, looking at the thin lips and walnut eyes. I pointed to the part about the shipping business. “Does this mean he had slaves?” I asked. 

“It means,” my father told me, “that he shipped a lot of things.” 

I felt a stern look. I don’t think I asked more questions. Curiosity bubbled in me. What had he had? What had he done? Who had they been? 


Here is the way I remember that time and self: I was nervous and social and slightly dyslexic. I scrambled my answers when doing long division. I was good at double Dutch but daydreamed during kickball. I wanted Guess jeans, but my mother thought designer brands were silly. Madonna had broken up with Sean Penn. Aerobics was in. It was the era just after girls started spraying their hair high with hairspray for big bangs, but before we learned about the hole in the ozone layer, about how the aerosol we used in our elaborate hair arrangements were part of the thing that had caused it. It was a year that black kids and white kids in my school were still friends, before we seemed to separate along race and class lines in junior high. It was roughly two years before the foundation of our elementary school, which is a few blocks from a fault line, cracked in the Loma Prieta quake. It was four years before our school district went bankrupt, before we learned it was being run by a corrupt administrator.  

At that time, history itself seemed like a novelty. I liked vinyl records, old fonts, the copy of Robinson Crusoe from my New England grandfather, complete with its woodcut prints of breadfruit and goats. There were, in that old Defoe, pictures of savages. I liked antique magazines from the Virginia Historical Society, boring in content, but interesting for advertisements for corsets, lime, sundries. I liked the word sundries. It was fun to visit farm museums with my mother; to lift heavy irons settler women used. In Tilden Regional Park, in junior ranger camp, rangers taught us the way that the Ohlone Indians of northern California had woven tule into canoes. We learned a few words in Miwok. We learned that much of the Ohlone language was destroyed. The ranger told us that the Miwok did not have a written history, believing that each generation was a fresh embodiment of their culture. There was only a need to practice one’s life, not to record it. They had each burned their belongings at death. But many Miwok and Ohlone had died with the arrival of the Spanish—​a tragedy or crime from which I believe we, recent arrivals from the Anglo east, somehow felt exempt. 

In fact, our sense of California history was fuzzy. In the sun and fogbelt two towns north of Berkeley, everything was new: Our home, in a slightly older California suburb, dated from 1949, and was younger than my both parents. Nearby was a scrappy recreational trail under the BART train tracks that bore the name Ohlone Greenway, but when I walked along it to the stone and stucco library, I found it hard to imagine the Ohlone, their presence, or even their ghosts. 

Yet whatever my mixture of likes and dislikes, knowing or not-​knowing, I felt uncomfortable trying to figure out which family history to present to Ms. Avila’s classroom. No one had asked me explicitly not to talk about Thomas Jefferson, but I felt instinctively that I should not mention him. I felt quivering pride in being able to locate him, but did not want to share it. I already feared that this gesture would be misunderstood. This feeling was instinctive, un-​decoded, unarticulated. Yet it was clear. Something had formed it. 

Over slurpies at the El Cerrito Plaza (the site had been the oldest Spanish-era hacienda in northern California and mysteriously burned just as developers had it slated to become a boxy cement mall), my friend Sierra told me she was planning to talk about her grandmother. She was Swedish. She had a recipe for spice cookies. My friend Stacy was part Native American, but didn’t know which tribe, it was all muffled echo, something she’d heard. Sioux? Cherokee? I remember my own struggle to speak. My family was just white, I told them. This was omission: I already knew that this didn’t account for what I already understood I didn’t want to say. I might not have been able to say class or race or privilege, but I knew I felt shame in what I suspected. It hovered like a horrific ghost around him. William Randolph had had a lot of ships, a lot of land, a lot of tobacco. I felt the pressure of my father’s silence. 


What was that shame? What was it made of? This, I did begin to wonder about. I knew we were not rich. We did not have money, really: At night I could hear my parents worry about how to pay for after-​school care, Girl Scout camp, student loans, and the mortgage on our small sun-​struck bungalow. Our street was hot and barren. In fact, the old man they had bought the house from had been mugged at his own front door. Our door was always locked. “You must remember that you are privileged,” my mother would say, but I didn’t know what exactly she meant. It had to do with summer camp and family at once. It had to do with reading and being read to; it had to do with saving for college and going to college.

Was it also a way of talking about race? Or a way of not naming race? Race, in fact, was not something we talked about. However, it was already clear—​and somehow I knew—​that what my parents called “privilege” had to do with race. Our school district hinged our middling suburb to a struggling industrial center. Our town was mostly white, and black kids in our school mostly came from that city, Richmond, California. Parents would murmur “busing” and “advantage” and “disadvantage,” crafting implications about who we were locking our doors against, and which families were and were not contributing positively to the schools. “Not all children have the same advantages,” my father would say. 

I could not have known or articulated then that the school district and town and even state I grew up in had roots in the South. I did not know, for instance, that Richmond and El Cerrito, California, were endpoints on one fork of the Great Migration; that the generation-​old bungalows we lived in had been built by white and black people who had come out of the dirt-poor, tenant-farming South or the dust bowl and headed west for jobs in the shipyards and at the Chevron refinery. I did not know that this migration was seen as a time of great hope for desegregation and a way out of rural poverty. I also wouldn’t have known how to say that the racism people had carried across the country had proved as portable (if not more so) than whatever scraps and shards and memories those Southerners brought with them. I did not know that the white Southerners who came to settle my town had begged the shipyards to reinstate Jim Crow. I had never learned the term “white flight.” But indeed, in sun-​glazed California, in the generation of World War II, just as Eckenrode was writing, white Southerners and their children refused to live beside the black people who had also made the same threadbare journeys. Thirty years later, I did not know that I lived in a town whose covenant clauses were still on the books, unenforced, unenforceable, but marking the once-​dream of a town that kept itself separate. 


There is no reason I would have known any of this. It is not what we learned in fifth grade. Instead I absorbed textures, subtexts, impressions. I sensed fault lines beneath me. My parents had not been part of that migration, exactly, but it was with some symmetry that the summer after my school presentation we went to another Richmond—​my father’s Richmond, the one in Virginia, then drove south to Danville, where my grandmother welcomed us into her world of polite lamps, spoons, willowware in an old maple highboy. The andirons that would come west to live in our fireplace had belonged to John Charles Randolph. One aunt had a mahogany table with a long pedigree. A credenza came from a Taylor plantation. There was one charming, small, nineteenth-​century writing desk, where perhaps some nineteenth-​century woman had sat, writing nineteenth-​century letters.

Was this the privilege? This presence of family, of memory, of record? Records blended into myths: The glass case held my grandfather’s grandfather Bennett’s collection of books by Sir Walter Scott, including acopy of Ivanhoe in which Bennett Taylor had written his name. Ivanhoe: a story whose rhetoric prepares for Eckenrode, in which the last remaining Saxons fight off an onslaught of Normans, a story which gave shape to the need for better treatment of the Jews within 1820s England, a story also adopted by Southerners to recast themselves as a clan of former Royalists now fighting off the onslaught of mercenary Puritans. Bennett’s copy is leather-​bound. The hand in fading black ink is precise. At its edges the ink turns yellow, the color of a bruise. 

In her nook,my grandmother had framed prints of Confederate soldiers. Bennett, the last Randolph in our line of patriarchs to have been born before the Civil War, had been the one on whom the losses of that war fell most personally. Bennett had fought in the Army of Virginia, had been wounded in several battles, and had been captured after losing his entire regiment at Pickett’s Charge. He had spent years as a prisoner of war on Johnson’s Island, on Lake Erie, a gruesome camp near what is now Sandusky, Ohio. From what I understand, it was slightly less gruesome than some war camps only because it had been saved for officers. Even here Bennett’s Randolph connection helped him a little: He was traded back across enemy lines with the help of a few Randolph cousins who had married the Coolidge family in the North. He came home, eventually. But, as my grandfather told me while swirling a Scotch and smoking a cigarette: “He never recovered. He was a broken man.” 

I learned that being broken meant that he was prone to rage, tempers, sleeplessness, fits. I learned that he had a very hard time holding a job, and he was not able to stay sober again. 

My grandmother’s prints were not of Bennett. They were generic, although his myth surrounded them. To everyone, but especially my grandfather, Bennett was still quiveringly within earshot, as if we waited at the edges of his detonation zone. It seemed that beyond his wounded ghost was a gate back to unbroken time. In his own way, Bennett was as important as that first William Randolph or Jefferson himself. Bennett’s trauma had shaped my grandfather’s life. He may have seemed as distant as the Saxons and Normans, as far off as battles on a foggy firth. Nevertheless he was the veteran of the war everyone called The War, which I came to understand was, despite its distance, the central one.


This was the place I was supposed to figure out how to be from. After saying the lilting Episcopal grace, my grandfather, at the head of the table, served supper. There was Scotch being drunk, wine with dinner, sometimes quite a bit of vodka afterward, though I am not sure I noticed that part then. We did not put bottles on the table. Our plates sat on doily-​like place mats embroidered for some long lost woman’s trousseau. It was all a tad fine for a post-​World War II bungalow: The china and place mats each seemed to need more care than anyone other than my grandmother wanted to give. Outside, Danville—​the Confederacy’s last capital—​leaked into big-​box stores and Food Lion and Piggly Wiggly. Freeway overpasses yawned in the direction of Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg, and down toward the North Carolina border. On the way out of town, mud-​daubed hickory barns collapsed, entombing their secrets. At the industrial river, a few old black men fished for catfish. The sluggish Dan River threaded beneath the precariously balanced sign above the now-​closed factory where, until the 1970s, my grandfather had spent his career.

I slunk off to read. Light slid through shut blinds. There were books about Scottish clans, poems by William Butler Yeats, and Mrs. William Starr Dana’s How to Know the Wild Flowers. There were also genealogies of the Randolphs. One was called Burke’s Presidential Families of the United States of America. Another was The Randolphs of Virginia: A compilation of the descendants of William Randolph of Turkey Island and HIS WIFE, Mary Isham of Bermuda Hundred. The book numbered all the descendants of William Randolph of Turkey Island. The names were bound in a heavy, cracking, blue volume whose spine was emblazoned “fari que sensit.” May anyone speak who understands. 

The book’s flyleaf had my great-​grandfather’s signature, and then my grandfather’s hand took over. With care he had traced himself into this book, with care he worked to find himself in it. Firm pencil x’s marked each name in his chain: his own; his grandfather’s; those of his children. One rusty paper-​clipped page traced nine generations from Jefferson to us: 

Thomas Jefferson m. Martha Skelton

Thomas Mann Randolph m. Martha Jefferson

Col. Thomas Jefferson Randolph m. Jane Hollins Nicholas

Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph m. John Charles Randolph Taylor

Lt. Col. Bennett Taylor m. Lucy Colston

John Charles Randolph Taylor II m. Mary Grammar Leigh

William Leigh Taylor b. 5-​07-​19, Norma Helen Pamplin, 10-​08-​18.

His number: 211422143. 

The children. Their numbers: 

Mary Leigh, William Leigh, Charles MacLellan, Martha Jefferson , 2114221431, 2, 3, 4.

The book held other clippings. “Jefferson descendant buried at Charlottesville.” “Sale price Declared on Old Virginia Home: Edgehill, the old Randolph acres.” A notice about the fire that burned Lego, Bennett’s childhood home. In an edition of “The Collected Papers of the Monticello Association,” an organization of Jefferson’s descendants which maintains the family graveyard at Monticello, I found my own name: Alice Teresa Taylor: 10-​24-​77. As the first child of my grandfather’s second son, I had a number. I figured it out: 21142214331. I was there, on the page. I was written in. I was accounted for.

Randolph Family Genealogy, ca. 1865, Accession #8937-a, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.

But what does that mean? May anyone who understands, speak. I pose here with my papers, but I also speak because I do not fully understand. I see melancholy brokenness dating from the Civil War and nostalgia for some false wholeness stretching into a romanticized past. I see the anxious re-creation of private aristocracy. I see an elaborate network of names and connections of cousins and estates and deeds and wills. I can enter if I want to. I have also been entered. Somehow I am inside. There hangs my mother’s admonition: Remember that you are privileged. I know I am inside, but I am also not sure I can wholly decode what purposes these privileges have served for me. 


In Virginia, legends offered themselves up for our affiliation. We were allowed to imagine ourselves against their tableaux. My aunt arranged private tours of Tuckahoe Plantation, Jefferson’s childhood home. We learned about the scandal at a plantation called Bizarre, in which one sad Randolph woman, in a tragic turn, was accused of murdering a child who had been conceived out of wedlock. Only later would I learn that the rumor of the time had been that the child had been conceived with one of the enslaved members of the household. Her family valiantly tried to protect her (and themselves) from shame. Patrick Henry successfully defended her in a proceeding that had been the days’ equivalent of the O. J. Simpson trial, and about which books are still occasionally published by small Virginia presses.

As for Jefferson: How could I help but like him? A portrait of Monticello hung on the guest-​bedroom wall. Jefferson’s signature pin glinted above the fireplace. How beautiful his books were, full of gardens, science, democracy. My first visit to Monticello was a private tour. We strolled past Jefferson’s bed nook, his cluttered desk. I remember his micrometer, clock, telescopes. That he was both the founder of our democracy and the figurehead of our ghostly private aristocracy did not rankle. I grew attached to his legend. My grandfather’s bookcase was cluttered with all the volumes of Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson’s historiographer, but not of “that non-​historian” Fawn Brodie, who had been one of the first white people to assert several years before that Jefferson had had an affair with his slave Sally Hemings. “It’s balderdash,” Granddaddy Leigh would say. “It’s never been proven. It’s just what they want to say.” It wasn’t until later that I noted who they were, or that Patrick Henry had not defended them. At the time, Granddaddy was definitive. They, after all, did not have papers. 

Of course there were no papers, except Jefferson’s farm book, which listed “male” and “female” next to chicken and horse, except for incomplete deeds of sale and ownership, what remained in censuses, or turned up in attics. Of course there were no papers except the papers made by those whose very power was in making and keeping them. It has been a vast historical project of the past twenty years to begin to work through this absence, to get beyond and around and under it by means of oral history and archaeology, by means of DNA testing. Now there have been books written about the kind of slaveholder Jefferson was, about the Hemingses and their family. Now there are exhibits of even the nails that the young boys made at the nailery. I have walked the grounds at Monticello and Poplar Forest where the finest archaeological traces of what remains of the slave dwellings are being dug up. I have talked to its top archaeologists about what is being learned about modes of life, about names, about connections. This is work that must continue. Even now, it is only beginning. 

But when I was a child, I was discouraged from asking. No one had answers, or someone changed the subject. “It was what people did then,” said my grandmother with a shrug. Jefferson, it seemed, was a Randolph, with a mercurial temper and a habit of coming down on both sides of the story. 

Meanwhile, despite its romance, the whole genealogical enterprise felt fragile, as delicately fussy as these tatters with which I was supposed to identify. I wasn’t sure what membership in this group was for. I wasn’t sure I wanted it. Nevertheless, as I played with the rusty paper clip binding my grandfather’s records, I let the ghosts in. 


When, a decade later, in 1998, it emerged that the marker found on Jefferson’s Y-​chromosome had been found also on the DNA of Sally Hemings’s male descendants, I was surprised. I was startled first, then felt a hissing pain. This was not because I disbelieved it, or even wanted to make room, as some of my family members did, for the chance that some other Jefferson male had fathered Hemings’s children. In fact, I felt this relation almost certainly to be true, and probably also only the tip of the iceberg about other stories of relationship, of family, that could be, or perhaps could never be, found. My shock made me dizzy. I had to stop and parse it. What startled me, as I began to articulate it, was that somehow, even though in that year I was writing about the irony of New York City’s ability to forget its connection to a slaveholding past, I—​even then—​was embodying the same amnesia, the same blindness. Of course I knew, but I had not thought, had not asked, had not tried to understand. Instead, in the intervening years, I had forgotten—​about slavery, Jefferson, all this half-​history. I was surprised not because of the slavery or the liaison, but because in revisiting this new Jefferson, I realized with what forceful amnesia I had forgotten that he had anything to do with me.

What had he had? What had he done? Who had they been? As soon as I began to ask questions, I realized how much work had gone into no longer asking them, into silences or re-​routings, into omissions, not-​noticings—​into a carefully pruned rhetoric of absence. When I began to realize I wanted the answers to such questions, I realized how afraid I was of asking them at all. A hard nausea churned in my stomach. 

How many enslaved people? What kind of slave owners? My fifth-​grade presentation was long over. My Granddaddy Leigh had died. My own fractured school district in Contra Costa County had fallen prey to California’s budget crisis, and I had gravitated toward the urban university town next door. I graduated from the California high school named after William Randolph’s old mentor, Lord Berkeley. At Berkeley High School I’d seen not only the O. J. Simpson trial, but the days of rioting following the beating of Rodney King. I felt the pervasive uneasiness of attending a school and moving increasingly in a world that, despite its many and varied efforts, failed to feel desegregated. Indeed, despite the fact that Berkeley High had desegregated voluntarily two years before Brown v. Board, it remained fissured, divided. It prepared students for the Ivy League, but they were (largely white) professors’ kids. It also only graduated 25 percent of the African-​American males who enrolled. Berkeley has until recently had one of the highest infant-​mortality rates among African-​American babies in the nation. Many of the liberal efforts of wealthy Berkeley seemed turned toward the procurement of excellent cheese. Despite the fact that my school was 30 percent African American, there were no African Americans in my classes. 

Detail of Randolph Family Genealogy, ca. 1865.

But by the time I began to articulate the questions—​about why this was, about what history might have to do with it—​just as I was naming what privilege was, how it might re-create itself, I was off furiously swimming in its currents. I had gotten into an elite liberal arts college on the East Coast—​my grandfather’s college, the one my mother had not attended because she was a woman and it was before they admitted women. I transplanted myself from overrun public schools into one very well-​tended private one, which, in addition to occupying a fine ranking in the US News and World Report, also boasted the largest amount of tennis courts, per capita, of any college in the US. My college had its own fraternity houses, and dapper young men and women interning for this or that firm or magazine. Doors seemed open to me, to them. I came to realize that some version of these doors had probably always been open, that despite my parents’ grad-​school debts and bad furniture in the golden west, I had always been invited to knock. 

By the time I graduated from college, the story about Sally Hemings’s children having the Jefferson male chromosomal marker had crossed every major newspaper in the country. Its discovery and presence had caused historians to reevaluate the formerly ignored long-​held oral history of the Hemings family. The bulk of the historical establishment now thought the story to be true. Nobody in particular would have thought of me as being affected, since I did not talk about Jefferson. I worked in Brooklyn where I waitressed and tried to intern but did not have enough money to intern for free. I attended cocktail parties and book parties. I was learning how to dress for functions in New York and Virginia. I now owned some khakis, some pearls. My grandfather was dead, but I visited my aunt and grandmother as much as I could. I, too, had learned how to stand, how to dress, some things about how to drawl. Still, I was not always comfortable in Virginia. 


The haunting pain that circles my Southern past is about the pressure of a lost world, but it is not the same lost world that Eckenrode or Ivanhoe or Bennett Taylor or my Granddaddy Leigh might have named. For me the sadness is about the fact that my family tree contains ghost trees, erasures, omissions, silences. Its very presence of records coexists with legally denying other people the right to records, on physically wrenching other people from their roots. In 1987 I said that my mother’s family was from Maine, that my father’s family was from Virginia, and that before that they were from England and Scotland and Wales. I stopped there. I didn’t tell my class the rest. 


But what does it mean to belong to a story, a person, a past? After all, each history contains many smaller histories, even as it obscures others. The story of the paterfamilias hides the materfamilias, the daughters, the workers, the enslaved, the others. Any history leaves out other stories. These leavings out are always political. They are often painful. Sometimes they are violent. 

In my case, the presence of something like a “family tree” in the way my family has kept one, the records and neat genealogies, have actually served as a way of not knowing other histories. The genealogical narrative with its clean lists served as a veil shielding us from other inquiry. The tree I knew obscured a hidden tree. For all its expanse of document, what was written was written in order to leave out other things. 

I look again at the Peale, the Wollaston. 

The abundance of portraits are, in fact, disguises.


It is twelve generations since William Randolph, nine since Jefferson. It is thirteen generations if you count my son, who is too young to take in any of this yet. I wonder how I will explain it to him, what he will make of it, how I can explore it with him differently. After thinking about my ancestor a long time, I have named my son Bennett, a name that also comes from my mother’s family, a name that also means blessed. My grandfather has been dead twenty years. When we were in Virginia last spring, my father and I went to Monticello to visit his grave, and my father cleaned his father’s stone and Bennett’s. For the last ninety years, Monticello has been a privately run historic home. Every year approximately 500,000 people visit: Families and Revolutionary War buffs and schoolchildren wait in long lines to pass the desk and books and dining room. Now people walk by the slave quarters, now people visit the basement. 

When I was a child, the tours were of Jefferson the great man—​books, telescope, architecture. Now the tours are of the lives of enslaved, of Mulberry Row, of the lives of Jefferson’s daughter and granddaughters, of their private hideaways in hot attic closets, cuddies where they would slink away for privacy when the great man of state occupied too much space. 

The tours mention who built his furniture, who cooked his meals. 

All of this is good. 

Selfishly, though, I sometimes wish for fewer people around me as I visit, for a little more of the large private silence I remember on the first day I visited long ago. 

Down the hill from the house on this heavily trafficked land is the graveyard: This land is still held by the family. It is the one thing the family did not auction off in the years after Jefferson’s death to pay his enormous debts, and it still belongs to the descendants of Jefferson’s two white daughters, Martha and Maria. And so then to Col. Thomas Jefferson Randolph and to Bennett, and to John Charles Randolph II and then to my Leigh Taylor, and, I suppose, also to me. 

My father and I are entitled to a key. We take it and slip up the back path into the graveyard where Jefferson and his two white children’s descendants are buried. Last spring as we walked around in the hum that buzzes through springtime Virginia silence, sun shone on the tulip poplars, the dogwood bloomed. Behind Jefferson’s obelisk monument is a collection of the privately remembered dead.

We stood by my grandfather’s grave. 

I looked back at the other stones in the small plot downhill from the long-​since auctioned-​off home. My eyes came to rest again on Bennett’s name. My father is not sure he wants to be buried here. “I don’t think your mother has any interest in it,” he said. Outside a man talked loudly to his son. “Next time let’s visit Elvis,” said the kid. I asked my dad, next time could we visit Elvis, too? He smiled. We looked back again. Moncure, Jane, Lucy. Legends—​our family stories: probably—​surely—​wrong. 

I felt the way I often do in the graveyard: at once slightly uncomfortable, and also with a reverence, as in an old church, with light among dust motes. I felt tenderness for these stones, their people. I felt, too, my bristling sense of all I wasn’t seeing, and would not know. We stood inside the Monticello graveyard awkwardly, in the place reserved for Jefferson’s descendants, his legitimate, written-​in descendants. People went by around us, children calling out the familiar question, “How did those people get in?”

As usual, I bow my head when that happens, shifting to leave.

I keep trying to answer. 

I have never known what to say. 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading