Shannon LaNier talks his roots: President Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings

Shannon LaNier and family at the Vineyard
Shannon LaNier and family at the Vineyard (Photo credit: Beryl Harold)

“My family is my world. I live and breathe for my girls, my wife and two daughters. Now that doesn’t mean that my immediate and extended family doesn’t get on my nerves, it just means, I love them despite that,” shares Shannon LaNier when asked about what his family means to him.

That extended family dates back to a scandalous union that spanned 38 years and was the backstory of many Hollywood films.

“I’ve always been told that I’m a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but it was my Uncle Billy who encouraged me to meet and learn more about my extended family. In 1998, ‘The Oprah Show’ featured another Jefferson descendent, Lucian K. Truscott — related through Jefferson’s wife Martha’s line – invited his Hemings cousins to his side of the family’s annual meeting for the first time. It was after that show that my uncle said, ‘You’re going to Monticello with me to meet your cousins.’ So my journey began. It was at Monticello that I met Jane Feldman, the co-author of our book, Jefferson’s Children; The Story Of One American Family. It was her idea to document my journey to dig deeper and find out more about my Jefferson family and how we’re all more alike than different,” he said.

Read what else he had to say.

What was the most challenging part of finding out information about your ancestors?

Luckily, because my ancestor is a [former] president, much of the research about my family had already been documented by various family members, historians and scientist. So for my journey, we went to those people to get more information about my link to Jefferson. Still the most challenging part was getting some people to open up and tell their stories. There is a lot of pain and even shame in a lot of families and many times people don’t want to bring those sad or hurtful stories to the surface, so they’d rather keep them buried in their memories. However, we had to convince some people that basically, the truth will set them free. Plus, the information could have been a critical part of who I am and who my relatives were.
(Photo credit: Shannon Lanier)
Recently, you went to the plantation where your ancestors lived. What was that experience like? Also, what was it like to sleep in the slave quarters of your ancestors?
When I was first approached about sleeping in a slave cabin on the plantation of my sixth great grandfather, President Thomas Jefferson, I didn’t know what to expect. Jefferson’s home, Monticello, was also the home of my sixth great grandmother Sally Hemings and tons of other slaves that I was related to. Every time I visit Monticello, I sense a connection to the mountaintop, but after spending the night there with The Slave Dwelling Project, I have a much deeper and emotional connection.
Sleeping in the slave cabin of John and Priscilla Hemings was a very emotional experience that brought up a lot of questions in my head and heart: What were my ancestors thinking when they went to bed and woke up? What did they eat? How did they stay warm? What if they had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night? Did the sounds of the wilderness scare them? Did they have a peaceful sleep or where they always worried someone would barge in and rape them or rip their families apart? And the question I pondered most was were my ancestors as uncomfortable as I was on the hard, cold, uncomfortable ground that kept me tossing and turning throughout the night, or did they get used to it? Then again, could anyone ever get used to those accommodations if they also had deep and open lacerations covering their bodies after being nearly beaten to death?
 Slave Quarters 2
If I wasn’t being kept awake by the hard mud floor, it was all those questions haunting me. Even as I finally greeted the morning sunrise and looked out the window of the slave cabin at the gardens and picturesque rolling hills of Charlottesville, Virginia, I couldn’t think of many thinks more beautiful. However, that thought was quickly overshadowed by the realization that if I was actually a slave, I would be looking at all the work that lay ahead for the day and the fact that I could actually die in those fields today. Not so pretty anymore.
All my questions were so overwhelming and weighed heavy on my heart. I couldn’t help but thank God over and over again that  I was just getting a small, modern-day glimpse of what my family and millions of other people had to really go through during slavery. I was so thankful that I didn’t have to experience the real thing. The slave dwelling project truly made be grateful and proud of my ancestors. They overcame so much and went through more than I would ever want to imagine. It’s because I come from a family of survivors that I’m even here today to write this recollection. It’s because of their strength and determination that I was born and now have the privileges and opportunities I have today. Now that I have a deeper understanding and appreciation for my ancestors and what they went through, I am certain I have no reason to complain when life gets tough and knocks me down. At least I’m able to get up and try again … which is what I will continue doing for my descendants to come and my ancestors who came before me.
Oh, and to say the least, I will never see Monticello in the same way! #ChangedForever
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