Jeffersons Split Over Hemings Descendants
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 1999; Page B1
CHARLOTTESVILLE, May 16 – They may not look alike or accept that they're related, but when the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, sat down at a white-linen luncheon this afternoon, it was like an episode of "Family Feud."
Before people even tucked in their napkins, goodwill lost its footing and the bickering began. The occasion was the 86th annual meeting of the Monticello Association, a group of 700 descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha. This year, for the first time, about 35 descendants of Hemings, long thought by some to have been the mistress of the third president, were invited as guests.
First came a motion to evict the predominantly black Hemings faction and other nonvoting members from the room while the group mulled over scientific evidence made public last fall showing all but conclusively that Jefferson fathered Hemings's youngest son, Eston. If the group accepted the evidence, it also had to consider whether the Hemings family should be admitted to the exclusive and, for now at least, all-white Monticello Association. Among other things, membership carries the privilege of burial at Monticello, Jefferson's neoclassical home in the hills above Charlottesville.
"People sitting at my table got up and said they wanted me and my cousins to leave," said Dorothy Westerinen, 41, a descendant of Eston Hemings. "It was painful to hear that."
Association members also discussed their desire for more scientific and historical data to determine whether a Jefferson male other than Thomas could have fathered a child with Hemings, and they pressed for careful consideration of any evidence before opening their ranks.
Last year, DNA tests compared the Y chromosome in males who trace their ancestors to Monticello with that of male descendants of Hemings. Researchers said the scientific data matched the descendants of Eston Hemings with the male line of Jeffersons. When historical evidence was added, researchers said it all but confirmed a liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Hemings, putting a scientific imprimatur on what had long been regarded as fact on the Hemings side.
The new evidence led to an invitation from the Monticello Association, spurred by member Lucian K. Truscott IV, to the Hemings descendants to be guests at this year's Jefferson family reunion. The gathering, attended by more than 200, was generally cordial, but some made clear their unease at the prospect of broadening the family tree.
The tension peaked at the close of today's 3½-hour luncheon when Truscott, an outspoken critic of the arm's-length treatment accorded the Hemings descendants, asked the association's executive committee to accept the Hemings group as honorary members.
A two-thirds vote from attending members would have been required. But outgoing President Robert Gillespie wouldn't allow it, saying later that honorary membership is, by tradition, reserved for officials at Jefferson's beloved University of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which operates Monticello.
An angry Truscott said Gillespie "wouldn't allow the vote because he knew he'd lose. It was chicken."
Members did approve an advisory panel to study any new evidence, including scientific tests and oral histories, with an eye toward changing their admissions criteria. Although officials said they hope to be able to vote on the revised rules by next year's gathering, Gillespie said it could take longer. "They could come back in a year and say the issue is still unclear," he said.
For the most part, Hemings's descendants said they accept that the process may be a long one.
John Q. Taylor King, spokesman for the Thomas Woodson Family Association, a branch of the Hemings family whose members were ruled out as Jefferson descendants by the DNA tests, said he hasn't decided whether to pursue membership but that, at any rate, he doesn't need the group's stamp of approval to know he is kin to Jefferson.
"We place implicit faith in the traditions of our family, and we will not let anyone discredit it," King said.
The Monticello Association did not completely close ranks before adjourning, however. Membership applications from three branches of the Hemings family were submitted; Gillespie said they will not be processed but are symbolic of the family's desire to be recognized by the Monticello Association.
Emerging from the Jefferson Ballroom before the luncheon was complete, Deborah Edwards, a descendant of Hemings's son Madison, said she was appalled by the hostility evident inside.
"In days gone by, they wore Wamsutta sheets and pillowcases," Edwards said. "Today they wear suits. Same scene. Different days."
Association member Theresa Shackelford emerged saying she was tired of Truscott and others criticizing the group's methods. She strode right up to him, breaking through a throng of reporters, to tell him so, mincing no words.
Truscott, Jefferson's great-great-great-grandson, took her on at once, saying the association is straining for a way to exclude the Hemings family.
"We'd like more thorough research," Shackelford countered. "We're not racists. We're snobs."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company