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Reunion bridges Jefferson family rift

Descendants of black servants who were genetically linked to the Jefferson family held their own reunion at the Monticello estate.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At the call for pictures, members of Thomas Jefferson’s family and descendants of his slaves once again crowded between columns of the president’s hilltop estate of Monticello to hug for the cameras. But unlike previous reunions, the smiles this weekend remained after the cameras stopped clicking. Weary of arguing with Jefferson family leaders who never accepted their claims of kinship, slave descendants started their own reunion this summer.

“We just got tired of people saying, ‘We don’t want you here,’” said Michele Cooley, a slave descendant from Baltimore, Md., who helped organize the weekend event.

Monticello has been an especially chilly place during the past few years for the descendants of Sally Hemings, a servant of Jefferson’s who many believe was his mistress.

Since a genetic link was established between the Hemingses and Jeffersons in 1998, Jefferson family members have sponsored studies that dispute Hemings family ties to the third president and refused them membership in the family’s exclusive Monticello Association.

Family rift
The debate over the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings grew so nasty at a Jefferson family reunion sponsored by the Monticello Association that some Jefferson family members who supported the Hemingses vowed never to come back. Twelve of them came this weekend to celebrate with the Hemings descendants.

“Frankly, I think a lot of my family would have more fun if they came to this one,” said Jefferson descendant David Works.

The reunion this weekend was exactly what slave descendants like Mary Esther Jefferson always wanted: “No politics, no note taking, nobody waving the Roberts Rules of Order at us.”

Under the bright Virginia sun, the 115 attendees clambered up the mountainside to walk through the grand estate their ancestors helped build. They viewed slave burial sites and traded old family photos of common ancestors.

“Welcome home,” said Dan Jordan, who runs the nonprofit Monticello Foundation that owns Monticello. The Monticello Foundation is separate from the Monticello Association.

It took a village
Monticello was once a village in itself. Jefferson kept as many as 130 slaves here to feed and clothe his family, tend his garden and build his furniture.

Through the generations, some branches of the Hemings clan passed down stories about their relationship with the father of the Declaration of Independence. In others, the stories were hushed, or buried altogether until inquisitive children grew up and started asking questions about the name “Jefferson” scratched in the back of the family Bible.

While a genetic link with Jefferson’s family has been shown in only one of Sally Hemings’ sons, Eston, many of the other families assert they are related, too.

Mary Jefferson, an Eston descendant, said her parents and grandparents tried to forget their slave past in an attempt to pass as white.

“In the ’40s and ’50s, if people knew they had any black blood, they wouldn’t have gotten the jobs they had,” she said. “They wouldn’t have been able to live where they did.”

But even now, among the multicolored sea of faces that descended from the Monticello slaves, Hemings descendant J. Calvin Jefferson said family similarities are obvious. “It’s fascinating, we’re all type-A people — argumentative, competitive,” he said.

Exclusion continues
Monticello Association president Nat Abeles said the Hemingses will continue to be excluded from family business until they can prove their lineage to Thomas Jefferson with DNA. The results to date show a likely relationship to the Jefferson family, but so far the tests are unable to prove descendancy from Thomas Jefferson or any other specific individual. Until then, their family reunions are probably best kept separate, Abeles said.

“I’m glad they’re happy now,” Abeles said.

Jordan updated those attending the weekend reunion on efforts by Monticello to collect oral histories of slave descendants and search out slave burial sites. “History, to be accurate, must be inclusive,” he said.

John Works Sr., a Monticello Association member who claims lineage to one of Jefferson’s daughters, said he hopes the rest of his family will eventually come to accept the Hemingses.

“Nobody has proof, really, of direct descendancy to Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “But look around ... everyone is exchanging information and getting to know each other. That’s what a family reunion is supposed to be about.”