Oakland woman, a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings, turned 100 on July 4th 

ByLiz Kreutz KGO logo
Saturday, July 4, 2020
Oakland woman, and descendant of slave Sally Hemings, turns 100 this July 4th 
Velma Williams, a descendant of Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson, turned 100-years-old on July 4, 2020. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's a celebration a century in the making, but a story that goes back even farther.

Meet Velma Williams.

The Oakland woman turned 100 year old this Independence Day. And if that wasn't remarkable enough, her family history might amaze you even more.

Williams is related to Sally Hemings, one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves with whom he had several children. She is the great-great granddaughter of Sally's older brother, Peter Hemings, a slave who served as Jefferson's cook and brewer.

It was only in recent years that Ms. Williams officially learned of her family's connection to the famous forefather. She has since traveled to Jefferson's Monticello Plantation in Virginia, where more than 400 enslaved men, women and children worked and lived, to meet with other descendants of Monticello's enslaved community.

"The last time I went there was a big reunion, and I had never seen so many people at a reunion," Williams said in an interview with Pulitzer prize-winning historian Annette Gordon Reed that was slated to air during Monticello's virtual Independence Day celebration Saturday.

"There were people of every color, shape, complexion, and there was camaraderie and warmth and something pleasant," she recalled. "And it was almost spiritual because we didn't know each other and yet everybody felt close, both whites and Blacks. I hadn't seen that before."

The claim that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings was for generations considered controversial. It was only in recent history, and in large part because of DNA testing, that descendants of Jefferson and Hemings were formally and officially recognized. An exhibit about Sally Hemings opened at Monticello in 2018.

Reached by phone as she prepared to celebrate her centennial birthday, Williams said she and her cousins had always heard stories from relatives about descending from Monticello's African-American community. She said that one woman in every generation of her family was supposed to be named Sally after Sally Hemings, and that her mother's name was Sally.

Williams said although she has lived in Oakland now for decades, she feels a sense of "warmth and belonging and coziness" whenever she is in Virginia.

"I feel like a Jeffersonian of sorts," she quipped, wistfully.

Williams says she will be celebrating her 100th birthday with her family at home in Oakland.

She is part of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation's virtual Independence Day celebration, which can be watched live starting at 8 a.m. PST on Facebook and on Monticello's website.