A Monticello Homecoming for All
By Leef Smith
Some had never been to Monticello, the hilltop plantation of Thomas Jefferson, but today they toured the grounds with the confidence of those who belong.
For the first time, the two families who consider themselves descendants of Jefferson – one group white, one predominantly black – were formally introduced.
At the annual Jefferson family reunion, descendants of Jefferson's slave and long rumored paramour, Sally Hemings, were invited to attend, because of DNA tests that scientists said showed, all but conclusively, that Jefferson fathered Hemings's youngest son, Eston.
"We have an opportunity for both sides of our family to come together and meet each other and mend something that has been pulled apart for so long," said Shay Banks-Young, 54, an African American from Columbus, Ohio, and a descendant of Sally Hemings's son Madison.
The Hemings descendants have not been formally recognized as family members by the Monticello Association, whose 700 members trace their lineage to one of Jefferson's two daughters. Among the privileges of being a proven descendant of Jefferson is the right to burial in the Monticello graveyard.
Whether to admit the Hemings clan will be one subject – probably the most hotly debated one – at the association's annual business meeting Sunday.
The Hemings descendants were formally invited to the gathering only after one association member, Los Angeles author and screenwriter Lucian Truscott, urged members of the Hemings clan to come as his guests.
Truscott, 52, who is white, has been a member of the association since birth. Fellow members who want more scientific evidence are "acting like two-bit redneck diner owners in 1955 who are happily denying seating to black people," Truscott said. "But I'm going to fight them. I'm going to make it so painful for them to keep the Hemingses out that it will be easier to let them in. I'm going to make their lives a living hell."
Truscott, whose uncle James Truscott will be installed as president of the association this weekend, said it is shameful that, until the most recent DNA evidence, most historians refused to believe the oral histories of blacks.
"The Hemings descendants are telling stories that were passed on by slaves, and they don't have any respect for the history of those people and their veracity," Truscott said. "You know what that is? It's racism."
Robert Gillespie, the outgoing Monticello Association president, said most members want more information, possibly more sophisticated scientific testing and more historical research to nail down the paternity issue. Until then, he said, it could be hard to set up a criteria for admitting less traditional descendants.
"I think that the association is optimistic that we can come up with additional information we need to admit the Hemings children, if we're all comfortable that they are descendants," said Gillespie, who is white. But he added, "Anybody who is looking for a rapid immediate decision may be unhappy."
Historians have debated for 200 years what transpired between Jefferson and his slave. Most scholars dismissed the possibility of a liaison, but Hemings's descendants argued that their families' oral histories were more than sufficient to prove the connection.
Their protests fell on deaf ears until late last year, when DNA tests were used to compare the Y chromosomes of men who traced their ancestors to Monticello. Researchers said that when combined with historical evidence, the results – which showed a match between descendants of Eston Hemings and the Jefferson men – all but confirmed the liaison between Sally Hemings and the nation's third president.
The DNA tests indicated that Thomas C. Woodson, Hemings's first son, was not Jefferson's child. But last week, researchers drew blood from a previously untested Woodson descendant to try again.
Eugene Foster, the retired University of Virginia pathologist who conceived the original DNA study, said he isn't surprised that the issue has ruffled so many feathers.
"Nothing can be conclusive, and since our results are so conflicting, they're bound to disappoint someone," Foster said. "Certainly there will be people who are not satisfied."
One Monticello Association member, Naomi Nobles, 45, of Port Townsend, Wash., came to Charlottesville this weekend not only for the reunion but also to bury her mother, Ruth Blackburn Nobles, in the cemetery. It was her first time at the plantation, and she said she and her relatives were excited to be meeting members of the Hemings family. The descendants of Sally Hemings should be afforded the same rights as any Jefferson descendant, she said.
"Clearly, Jefferson loved her, and love is what counts," Nobles said. When families accept their cultural diversity, "it's a beautiful thing," she said. "It could heal racism in our country."
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