When Shannon LaNier was a boy, he told his classmates that President Thomas Jefferson was his great grandfather. His teacher didn't see how that was possible. LaNier looks black. She instructed him to stop lying. Now, he says, DNA and other evidence supports the story that had been passed down in his family of its connection to Jefferson and enslaved woman Sally Hemings. LaNier speaks in Kalamazoo on Feb. 27.
Today, LaNier, co-author of "Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family," is a guest on WestSouthwest, the news and public affairs show on WMUK (listen now: click icon above). He talks about his lineage, the state of race relations and his recommendations for racial healing.
LaNier is related to Jefferson on his mother's father's side. He says his book represents the first time that the voices of direct descendants of Jefferson, America's third president, are heard. In total, some two dozen relatives of the children that Jefferson fathered between his wife, Martha, and Sally Hemings shared their personal stories with LaNier. Usually, it's historians recounting the Jefferson-Hemings tie in writings, according to LaNier.
"Some did not know (they were black) because their family had started to pass as white, and hid the story of who they were, their family, and took it to the grave with them."
LaNier says there was good reason why families, not just his, have continued to keep up the lie of their racial background.
"Remember, if someone found out you were passing or trying to trick or lie to them, they could put threats on your life and your family's life, so a lot was done to preserve people passing because they had to protect themselves."
LaNier, who now works as a TV journalist in New York City, says his family's story is really a story of America.
"Our family just happens to relate back to a president."
Due to slavery, he says that "there's a lot of people in this country...that have no idea they have black blood running in their veins."
But some do know. LaNier says he has some relatives who are very much aware of their heritage but choose to keep it private.
"There are some people who are still passing today and are comfortable, and know," he says.
LaNier says he decided to write a book with photojournalist Jane Feldman after Oprah Winfrey organized a Jefferson family reunion in 1999 at the late President Jefferson's Monticello plantation in Virginia. LaNier was in attendance at that reunion; he was then 18 years old.
LaNier is the keynote speaker for the Kalamazoo Legacy Luncheon on Feb. 27 at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo. The last day to register is Feb. 22. The event honors scholarship recipients and community members.