When the Country's Founding Father is Your Founding Father- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
President William Howard Taft and his sons, Robert, right, and Charles Phelps. (Bettmann / Corbis)

When the Country's Founding Father is Your Founding Father

The descendants of American presidents are the athletic trainers, lawyers, salesmen and executives of everyday life

Shannon Lanier New York, New York

Shannon Lanier
(Associated Press)

When Shannon Lanier, 32 and a national correspondent for Black Enterprise, was in first grade, he told his class that he was related to Thomas Jefferson. “The teacher said, ‘Sit down and stop telling lies,’” he recalls. She doubted Lanier, surely in part, because he is black. “I was taken aback because that’s the life I’ve known. My mother taught my brother and me a lot about staying true to who we are and believing our stories,” says Lanier, a sixth-great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, through their son, Madison Hemings.

In May of 1999, just months after DNA analysis linked Jefferson and Hemings through their youngest son, Eston Hemings, the Monticello Association had a reunion attended by descendants of Jefferson and both his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and Sally Hemings at the president’s former home in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lanier, then a freshman at Kent State University, attended. In addition to many new family members, some welcoming and others not, he met photographer Jane Feldman. He and Feldman traveled the country interviewing four generations of Jefferson descendants, the result of which was Jefferson’s Children, a book published in 2000. “Everything changed,” says Lanier. “I became an ambassador for the family.”

Lanier is curious about Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings. “I think it was love. But regardless of how it happened I am here because of him,” says Lanier. “I don’t think it belittles or takes away from anything that he did for this country. It actually enhances who he was as a person—the fact that he was in love with somebody for 38 years, the fact that he helped father this country in more ways than one.”

Lanier is a new father himself. His 1-year-old daughter, Madison, is named after Madison Hemings.

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