Gayle Jessup White’s multilayered autobiography, Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy, is divided into three parts. The first, most directly autobiographical part of Reclamation offers a fascinating look at Black life in a prosperous neighborhood in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and ’70s—a neighborhood that has since been washed away in a wave of gentrification. White describes growing up in this neighborhood as the baby of her family. Her reserved father and acquisitive mother did not get along, but they protected and pampered White so that she did not experience “what racism felt like” until she was 13.
Part two is the heart of the book, documenting White’s scrupulous search to prove her family’s claim that they are Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. White, who is now in her mid-60s, first heard that claim as a young teenager, from her much older sister. Her sister had heard it from Aunt Peachie, an elderly relative who died before White was born. Although she was fascinated almost to the point of obsession, White didn’t begin her genealogical search until much later.
The long process White went through to establish her lineage will be especially interesting to amateur genealogists. But it is also of great interest in general because of the subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles she faced as a Black person claiming to be a descendant of the author of the Declaration of Independence. In one chapter, White describes developing a relationship with a white Jefferson descendant, a poet and writer, only to end up feeling like her personal narrative had been appropriated and diminished by her would-be collaborator.
During her research, White developed a relationship with historians at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, which is the focus of the third part of the book. For a number of powerful reasons, White, who trained as a journalist and has worked as a TV reporter throughout the South, decided Monticello was where she wanted to work at the end of her career. Getting hired there required superhuman persistence, and after becoming Monticello’s first Community Engagement Officer, she was one of only a few Black employees and frequently faced criticism from her white co-workers. Overcoming the institution’s doubts about her, her work eventually transformed Monticello into a place committed to updating the ways it portrays the lives of people who were enslaved there.