It’s not often when a branch from your family tree is a chapter in presidential history.
Jacqueline Yurkoski’s genealogy links her as the great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and his slave SallyHemings. As a descendant of Madison Hemings, the alleged second son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the second-year in molecular genetics has participated in much of the recent research surrounding the historical relationship, including an oral history project with Monticello, Jefferson’s home, and an exhibit in the Smithsonian.
Although her research in her genealogy is somewhat recent,Yurkoski explained that she has known her family’s history her entire life. Her interest in her origin piqued when she began to learn about the third U.S. president in elementary school.
“I was very excited (when I found out about my relationship with Jefferson). It was never something I talked about at school or anything … obviously I didn’t brag about it,” Yurkoski said. “It makes you all antsy and jittery inside when you’re in class and you’re talking about a president, and you’re related to the president.”
When Yurkoski began to reveal the significance of her bloodline to peers and teachers, she said the reactions varied, and defined it as “different strokes for different kinds of people.”
Her friends, she said were excited and more accepting of the controversial relationship between Jefferson andHemings. However, the adults’ reactions depended on their own feelings toward the former president. Once a high school history teacher questioned the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.
“He actually used vulgar language. He called Sally this and that and I was laughing in the back of the classroom,”Yurkoski said. “He was really offended, he was like, ‘Excuse me? What do you have to say about that?’ And that’s when I spoke up and I told him, ‘I am a product of that relationship.’”
Yurkoksi’s genealogy is evidence of a hotly debated historical relationship. Margaret Newell, OSU associate professor in history and a former tour guide of Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Virginia, explained that although a growing body of evidence has been compiled through DNA testing and previous records to affirm Jefferson’s relation to Heming’schildren, those who argue against Jefferson and Heming’s relationship “don’t want to think of a person who penned the Declaration of Independence as somebody who embraced slavery.”
Yurkoski has worked to raise awareness about the legitimacy of the relationship through her own heritage. In January,Yurkoski and her family attended the exhibit “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., as honorary guests for their interviews and close work with Monticello historian Lucia Cinder Stanton.
Stanton, now retired, headed an oral history project focusing on the descendants of the slave community at Monticello which was featured in the Smithsonian exhibit “Getting Word.” Stanton and other Monticello historians conducted about 100 interviews with about 180 descendants, including Yurkoski’s family and herself.
“What they have found important … from the Madison-Hemings’ line, Jacqueline’s line, was to pass down the story of their descent of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and they did this even earlier in the 20th century in the climate of real hostility and denial,” Stanton said. “This story … became the important thing to pass on, so it’s a very, very, very strong oral tradition that has been passed from generation to generation.”
Additionally, Yurkoski was featured in the November 2012 issue of “Glamour” magazine as one of six women who were descendants of a former U.S. president. Relations included that of Andrew Jackson, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, James Monroe and Rutherford B. Hayes.
“I was so nervous,” Yurkoski said of the “Glamour” article. “One of (the women from the article) … works for a news broadcasting station, and another one is an actress, another one was close to my age and some are very involved in their political past … and there’s me, who’s kind of like the odd one out because the relationship of Jefferson andHeming’s was so closed off for so long that it’s still very new to other political families and the world in general.”
In the magazine interview, Yurkoski disclosed her vote for President Barack Obama in the upcoming election. She explained that it is not her history that influenced her to vote but instead her role as a U.S. citizen.
“I feel like it would be a bad thing to say that my genealogy is what was making me want to vote. Being a student and being a young person in this country is what is driving my interest in politics. I’m not particularly involved, but I know the issues and I know why I’m voting,” Yurkoski said.
As Yurkoski continues to share her family’s history, she explained she wants to pass on the history of her heritage as her parents did to her. While she has only studied two years at OSU, she has yet to conduct research within the university on her genealogy. However, she said she would be open to it.
“That’s something I would really like to do because sources (at OSU) are unlimited,” Yurkoski said. “I’m sure there are some historians here that are interested in it.”