JEFFERSON-HEMINGS-L ArchivesArchiver > JEFFERSON-HEMINGS > 2003-07 > 1059041576
From: "Ramona Bayes Woods" <>
Subject: [JEFFERSON-HEMINGS] Monticello Reunion NY Times July 14, 2003
Date: Thu, 24 Jul 2003 06:12:56 -0400
Did anyone on our list attend the Reunion?
Steve and I would love more info on the Hughes and Yates surnames.
Slaves' descendants hold Monticello reunion
By James Dao
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Monday, July 14, 2003
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- When they were young, their parents told them they were related to a famous man, a slave owner who became president. They called it a family secret, because outsiders would never believe that black children could be descendants of a president.
But some did talk about that distant ancestor, Thomas Jefferson, and were laughed at or called liars by friends and even teachers.
No one is calling them liars anymore.
Nearly five years after DNA testing provided compelling -- some argue overwhelming -- evidence that Jefferson fathered at least one child with a young slave named Sally Hemings, about 150 of her family's descendants gathered this past weekend for their first reunion on the grounds of Jefferson's hilltop plantation, Monticello.
They came in a rainbow of shades: some dark-skinned, some light brown, some as white as a Mayflower descendant. They behaved as one would expect long-lost cousins to behave, hugging and kissing and sharing stories about children, jobs, golf and family trees.
Just after daybreak Sunday morning, they gathered under a pale blue sky before what is thought to be one of Monticello's slave graveyards, to pay tribute to their clan's matriarchs, Sally and her mother, Elizabeth Hemings.
"They were pieces of an American puzzle who didn't quite fit in," said the Rev. Timothy Hughes, a descendant of one of Elizabeth Hemings' daughters, Betty.
Then they moved to a hallowed spot that, before Sunday, had been closed to most of them: the Jefferson family cemetery. They posed for photos, laid flowers on tombstones and gently touched the simple stone obelisk above the third president's grave.
"This today, while not a revolution, is a great reconciliation," said Gregory Cooley, a Virginia lawyer descended from Thomas Woodson, who is thought by many to be Sally's first son.
But beneath the uplifting veneer of the weekend's reunion lies an increasingly rancorous battle between the Hemings clan and some of Jefferson's long-established descendants over who can claim the Jefferson birthright. At its heart, the fight is a metaphor for Americans' deeply conflicted views on race, family and Jefferson himself.
On one side, many of the Hemingses have argued for an all-inclusive definition of family that would encompass the offspring of all seven of Sally's children. Some have argued that the group should be expanded to include all the descendants of Elizabeth Hemings as well.
The DNA test concluded that there was strong evidence that a Jefferson male, probably Thomas himself, fathered one of Sally's sons, Eston. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Monticello, issued a report in 2000 saying that the DNA results, combined with other historical evidence, indicated "a high probability" that Jefferson fathered Eston, and possibly five of Sally's other children.
That conclusion has been endorsed by the National Genealogical Society and a number of prominent Jefferson scholars, many of whom had rejected the Hemingses' claim before.
"Prior to the DNA, I'd say the case against Jefferson didn't reach beyond reasonable doubt," said the historian Joseph Ellis, the author of a Jefferson biography, "American Sphinx." "Jefferson is now regarded by most serious scholars as having clearly had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings."
But the Monticello Association, which operates the Jefferson cemetery and represents descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, has not accepted the DNA findings as conclusive. And the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which includes some of Jefferson's descendants, commissioned its own panel, which concluded in 2001 that Jefferson's younger brother, Randolph, was more likely to have been the father of Sally's children.
"The reason we don't think Jefferson did this is that his reputation meant everything to him, and he would not have risked it on a young slave woman," said Nathaniel Abeles, president of the Monticello Association. "He had everything to lose and nothing to gain, especially when there were plenty of other available women at that time."
The fight between the groups has at times taken on the orchestrated nastiness of a political campaign.
Led by Abeles, the association set a limit on guests to this year's association meeting in Monticello, held in May, after he learned that Hemings family members were planning to send a large contingent.
The Hemings group later discovered that Abeles' wife, Paulie, had monitored their efforts by joining their Yahoo e-mail group, posing as a 67-year-old black woman named Cassandra Lewis. Paulie Abeles has admitted to the ruse, claiming that she was monitoring the Hemings group's efforts to infiltrate and perhaps disrupt the association's meeting.
The dispute has clearly created bitter divisions within the once sleepy association. Susan Hutchison, a descendant of Martha Randolph, Jefferson's daughter, read a statement Sunday apologizing to the Hemings family for the association's exclusive policies and expressing "deep regret" that Jefferson owned slaves.
"Our lives have been enriched by our relationship with you," she said.
Saturday night, the reunion guests gathered for a family photo. Some began singing, "We are family."
"Like all families, there's a few you'd like to throw away," said Cauline Yates, 49, a descendant of Elizabeth Hemings. "But if this turned out to be a big joke, I'd still have made a lot of new friends."
|[JEFFERSON-HEMINGS] Monticello Reunion NY Times July 14, 2003 by "Ramona Bayes Woods" <>|