Michele Cooley waited by the side of a road in a steady drizzle as a crowd of Thomas Jefferson descendants filed into shuttles and drove to Monticello, the third president’s hilltop estate. Cooley, a descendant of Jefferson’s reputed slave mistress Sally Hemings, also came for last weekend’s annual reunion, but this year, the Hemings descendants were told they needed to be escorted by a willing Jefferson family member. “So I’m waiting,” Cooley said, scanning the crowd for a sponsor.
“Every year, I feel so uncomfortable because you know people don’t want us to be here,” Cooley said. “But I still feel victorious because my family has developed so many friendships with some of them.”
Five years after DNA tests found a genetic link between the Hemings family and the Jeffersons — either Thomas Jefferson or his brother — the two groups have grown far apart.
They are divided among Jeffersons who refuse to consider any sexual relationship between their famous patriarch and his slave, and vocal members of both families who want the Hemings clan recognized as relatives despite the lack of definitive scientific evidence proving a direct line from Thomas Jefferson.
A separate reunion
In the past year, the Jefferson family’s Monticello Association excluded the Hemingses from membership and prohibited its own members from taking more than two Hemings guests each to the reunion.
The weekend reunion was small, attended by about 80 of the Monticello Association’s 800 members and about 20 of the 2,500 people who claim Hemings as an ancestor.
Many Hemings family members say they’re tired of the infighting, and they’ve decided to plan their own reunion at Monticello in July.
“We’re going to have speeches and African-American dancing — it’s going to be totally different,” said Julia Westerinen, a Hemings descendant who is organizing the event.
Thomas Beauchamp, a Jefferson descendant from St. Louis, Mo., said that he was tired of having family affairs so politicized and that it wasn’t so bad that the new guest policy made it harder for the Hemingses to attend.
“I’m not in this fight at all, but if there’s a way to make this weekend a little easier, I’m all for it,” Beauchamp said.
“Why are they (the Hemingses) even coming anymore?” asked John Works Jr., a former Monticello Association president. “They have their own reunion now.”
Checking in on chat
Many family members talked about current association president Nat Abeles and his wife Paulie, who obtained messages from a private Internet chat group set up for the Hemings family.
Paulie Abeles said she gained access by masquerading as a 67-year-old slave descendant. When Hemings family members discussed how to find enough Jefferson sponsors to get them invited to the reunion, Paulie forwarded the messages to Nat, who used the information to change the association’s guest acceptance procedures in a way that made it harder for the Hemingses to attend.
“That’s got to be fraud of some kind,” said Ginny Truscott of Seattle, a Jefferson descendant who wants to oust Nat Abeles.
Works said he thought the Abeles’ actions were justified, given that the chat group kicked off people that its members considered threatening.
“It’s not inclusive,” he said. “It’s discriminatory.”
On Sunday morning, about 25 members of both families gathered to take daisies to the site where Jefferson’s slaves were buried. They held hands in a broad circle as they prayed together.
“If (Thomas Jefferson) could look down at us today, he’d say to himself, this is my family,” said John Works Sr., a Jefferson descendant.