Shannon LaNier is a television reporter, actor, author, and a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States. He's also a Black man — the sixth great-grandson of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who had six children with the Founding Father.
Dressed in period clothing, LaNier recently stepped in front of the camera of Drew Gardner, a photographer who painstakingly re-creates portraits of historical figures with their direct descendants. His ongoing Descendants project is a commission by the Smithsonian.
Shannon LaNier chose not to wear a wig while posing as his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. "I didn't want to become Jefferson," says LaNier, who has gone to reunions at Monticello and co-authored the book Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family. "My ancestor had his dreams—and now it's up to all of us living in America today to make sure no one is excluded from the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
LaNier also had this to say about his famous relative:
"He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn't practice it. He owned people. And now I'm here because of it."
Watch the behind-the-scenes video of this portrait being made.
screengrabs via Smithsonian/Drew Gardner