Thomas Jefferson’s Jewish Descendants

November 19, 2020 | James Loeffler
About the author: James Loeffler, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and scholar-in-residence at Pro Musica Hebraica, is currently the Robert A. Savitt fellow at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His “The Death of Jewish Culture” was the featured monthly essay in Mosaic for May 2014.

In 1822, David Isaacs and Nancy West, of Charlottesville, Virginia, were indicted for running afoul of the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. James Loeffler tells their story:

David was a Jewish immigrant from Germany who ran the town’s general store. For his religious community, he traveled back and forth to the Beth Shalome synagogue in Richmond. Nancy was a free mixed-race woman who owned local property, ran a bakery, and launched one of the country’s first African-American newspapers. Together, they raised seven children as common-law husband and wife in the heart of downtown Charlottesville. Their lives passed without incident until the day they were hauled into court to face criminal prosecution for interracial miscegenation.

In 1827, after five years of court battles, the charges were finally dropped against the couple. Life returned to normal. The children grew up. Then [their] daughter Julia Ann married a local man named Eston Hemings. The son of Sally Hemings, he had recently been freed from slavery after the death of his father, Thomas Jefferson. Yet the story did not end there. Eston and Julia Ann later moved to the Midwest, where they assumed the surname “Jefferson,” and began to identify publicly as Jefferson’s white, Christian descendants.

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