Husband: Robert Martin Hill Atkins, born 1938
Upon birth, I was honored with the name Mary Elizabeth and given the nickname "Betty" which was used by several cousins born in same generation and apparently each generation since that of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings (1735-1809).
My father noted that it was a tradition to name the first daughter honoring memory of her and always said, "honor your name." I tried from childhood on to be smart and useful to others as she reportedly tried to be.
My youthful years were consumed mostly by my education, including degrees from University of Pittsburgh where as an undergraduate I majored in chemistry and Smith College where I entered the graduate field of social sciences. As an after-thought, I was generally interested in not only the chemistry of human existence but also the social relationships.
Years ago when I first began serious inquiry followed by research into lives of my Hemings, Lee, Lowry and other ancestors, ... it became very apparent that work tasks had to begin with what was known regarding the legacies of not only my ancestors, but that of others who lived during their generations, including souls of African and European ancestry.
It was almost always obvious to me that most of my African-American classmates at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh had in common various skin colors and hair grades inherited from ancestors in both Africa and Europe in addition to Native Americans.
And, my White classmates were equally obvious with shades of color depicting realties of Mediterranean and European genetic assimilation many generations before any were conceived in America. Indeed, distinctions among all my classmates and teachers was in the mastery and use of the English language in determining who was inferior or superior, most evident by tests and grades in all subject matters.
I had known from childhood via conversations with my grandmother Mary Elizabeth Hemings Lee and grandfather Thomas Findley Lee about heritage linked back many years in American history. I was a good listener and retained pertinent names and places like "the Black Mariah" (Sally Hemings), Grandma Rose (mother of Nancy Lee) and the Arlington White House birth of my grandfather on the day that John Brown was hanged in 1859. As a child I never visited Monticello but did visit and absorb information about places like Bloomington and Chillicothe in Ohio and the town of Lowry in Virginia and all my cousins relative to the same.
My father and mother were always surrounded by relatives who on occasion were more likely to cite names from their inherited past since so many had the same names. My interests as a youthful scholar were fueled by reading works by Carter G. Woodson and listening to Aunt Nancy Harriette Lee.
It was during my growing up and reaching out years of learning. I should add that my schooling also mattered from Sunday school through K-12 graduating from Westinghouse High School, through doing the same at the University of Pittsburgh and on through graduate study and master of social work degree at Smith College.
The scholarly interests of both she and I were challenged by the 1970s book of Professor Fawn Brody:
"The Intimate Life of Thomas Jefferson."
Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, a principal leader in the American Revolution, and the third president of the United States. Jefferson is also regarded as a great political thinker and diplomat. The U.S. doubled its area in 1803 when he bought territory west of the Mississippi called the Louisiana Purchase. Recited by an actor. Hulton Deutsch/(p) 1992 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. "Thomas Jefferson,"
But, it was not until after my retirement as a professor at Michigan State University and return to Pittsburgh as my place of birth that I had the time, finances or internet access to begin working the tasks I had set for myself. I did not begin with Thomas Jefferson or Sally Hemings, ... but with my parents and grand-parents.
"My Living Word" project began with a recall as to what I had heard and learned as a child and teenager from my maternal grandmother and namesake Mary Elizabeth Hemings Butler Lee and paternal grand-father Thomas Findley Lee (born at the Arlington White House on the day John Brown was hanged),
... about what they had seen and heard from their parents and grand-parents specified on this website. I outlined my interests with Nancy Harriette Lee, who for over 75 years held the title of "family historian."
I then discussed my interests with siblings and many cousins in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. Not surprisingly, most were polite but not excited about digging up a past thought to be long ago, and best, buried less painful knowledge should arise about Black and White ancestors that would tarnish existing relationships.
Though self-evident by DNA and other evidence that human beings in America and elsewhere are related, it is still too often painful for many people to accept facts about their heritage. Indeed, so-called racial assimilation began long before and after Columbus "discovered America."
Most Hemings' offspring knew from their parents and grand-parents at least one story about the life of Sarah (Sally) Hemings at Monticello known among her offspring as "the Black Mariah." The story told is that both Sarah (Sally) Hemings (born in 1773) and Mary (Maria) Jefferson (born in 1778) looked very much like Martha Wayles Jefferson.
In fact they were also alike in color, eyes, hair and demeanor to such an extent that since Jefferson referred to his daughter Maria as "Mariah;" ... it quickly came to past that slaves at Monticello referred to her as the "Black Mariah." There are no known portraits of these three women, but a silhouette compiled during lifetime of Martha can be seen by clicking below:
Bit by bit, I detected attitudes reflecting that little additional information was known, other than a confidence that "if Nancy said so then I probably agree, ... she knows more about us than some writer none of us have ever met."
Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings was the first order of research covering about five (5) years of travel, reading and friendly interviews with both Black and White folks. It was journey well worth the effort because of the records, writings, places and times of Thomas Jefferson whose lifetime afforded linkages to many people and places like my Lee ancestors before and after dispersal across Virginia from Mount Vernon.
It was not simply because Betty was the life-giving mother of Sarah (Sally) Hemings who was my great-great grandmother and concubine of President Thomas Jefferson; ... but, because she was also my namesake and apparently a very gifted and talented woman that saved the life of a gifted child who inspired change for world we live in ... "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all ..........................."
The in-depth approach to researching William Lee included extensive research into the clouded lives of George and Martha Washington, the Custis family, the Lee and Carter families among many others, ... including his brother Frank. We learned that behind the glitter of American aristocracy manifested by chattel slavery and old testament judgments existed flickering lights in lives like Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and William (Billy) Lee.
Both were torn between two worlds, one of slaves and the other of masters who regardless of their rank and esteem were hypocrites dependent upon the servitude made legal. The stories surrounding their lives have allowed me to seek to understand their experiences and legacies. Click below to go into the world of Monticello that Thomas Jefferson helped generate.
The famed painting by artist Edward Savage depicted the great George Washington with his grandchildren, wife Martha Washington and my ancestor William Lee, ... that some scholars have speculated to have been Washington's valet William Shields, son of Frank Lee and a nephew to William Lee ... who had replaced his Uncle William Lee following his accident. Yet, I agree with others that Washington himself chose the persons he wanted depicted for posterity as persons most close and personal in his life experiences. The significance is that it is one of very few paintings in the era that dared depict a slave as an upright man, rather than the bent and bowed images preferred in the culture. The family portrait located at National Gallery can be viewed by clicking link below:
Our view is that William Lee looked nothing like the portrait commissioned by famed writer Washington Irving, a lawyer and slave trader whose family in England and America had deep roots and convictions about slaves being descendents of Ham and thus cursed by God to be hewers of wood and bearers of water.
To assure that William Lee was depicted as a slave, the artist both darkened his complexion and inserted a turban on his head to further denigrate him in common portrayal of eunuchs widely known and owned by Arabs and Jews in the Mediterranean. Modern writers have generally accepted this unrealistic depiction of William Lee to be found on Wikipedia by clicking below.
This site makes obvious as to why I cannot tell my offspring or those of siblings about the wonders of our lives without telling the story of relatives who lived before us. Objectives are to not simply tell names and dates, but what their ancestors tried to do in living a useful life. So, if we want to be remembered, do unto others as we would have others remember us living a useful life.
I do indeed welcome inputs from relatives near and far who upon viewing this site might choose to help fill in pieces of the puzzle. Each blank page is a story that needs to be researched and told. The task begins with caring descendents who prove their inherent worth by knowing what it is?
with questions or comments about this web site.