"Experience declares," Thomas Jefferson once lamented, "that man is the only animal which devours his own kind." Two centuries later the Founding Father might be shocked to find how true those words are—especially when applied to the nasty dispute that's broken out among his own kinfolk.
For four years dozens of the roughly 1,400 descendants of Sally Hemings have lobbied for entry into the Monticello Association, an organization of 780 people who celebrate their ancestral ties to Jefferson. The Hemings contingent claims that Sally, who was a slave on Jefferson's Virginia plantation, had a long affair with the third President that produced several children—to whom they are directly related. But at a contentious meeting of the all-white Monticello Association on May 5, the group concluded that there was "not sufficient evidence" to back the Hemingses and voted 74-6 to deny them entry. "This just shows that racism can live in the hearts of some people even to this day," says Julia Jefferson Westerinen, 67, a retired schoolteacher from Staten Island, N.Y., who is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Sally, and who was one of 30 of her family members to travel to Charlottesville for the vote. "This was a chance for the association members to promote some racial healing. They stupidly chose not to, and they are the worse for it—not us."
As far as the Hemings partisans are concerned, there is almost no doubt at all that Sally and Jefferson were lovers. Roger Wilkins, the author of Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, cites ample family records and oral histories that establish Hemings's close involvement with Jefferson for as long as 38 years. On top of that there is DNA evidence, collected and tested by geneticists in 1998, showing a link between the Jeffersons and the Hemingses. "They need to hold to this myth of white purity in the face of the facts," says Wilkins of the association, "and in doing so they ignore history."
But the association insists that strict historical accuracy is, in fact, the standard they are seeking to uphold. John Works Jr., a former president of the group who led the opposition against the Hemings application, points out that the DNA evidence proved only that Sally's descendants were related to a male Jefferson. Jefferson scholar Robert F. Turner, who was asked by Works to conduct an independent review of the evidence, argues that Jefferson, who kept 115 slaves but railed against the evils of slavery, would not have become involved with Sally, especially since she would only have been 13 or 14 at the time their liaison supposedly began. "He was not a perfect man," says Turner, but "it's so contrary to what we know about his character as to be questionable." Turner suggests that a more likely candidate for Sally's lover is Thomas's brother Randolph, who frequently visited Monticello and its slave quarters.
Works, 47, who is an investor adviser in Denver, maintains that race had nothing to do with the association's decision, contending that any illegitimate white heirs would have to present the same proof of lineal descent. He cast that stance in doubt, however, when two weeks before the vote he e-mailed a racially inflammatory image of the black comedian Bernie Mac with his mouth zipped shut to another member of the association, who then leaked it to the press. Works apologized for what he called his "lack of judgment and sensitivity." And he declared that the association would be willing to consider the Hemingses' application again in the future. "We haven't shut the door," said Works. "They can come back with more evidence."
Till then, the Hemings descendants will have to get by without membership in the association, the chief benefit of which is the right to be buried in the cemetery at Monticello. But thanks to their efforts over the past few years, which brought together a crew of relatives who otherwise never would have known each other, they are already succeeding. "We talk on the phone, we visit," says Westerinen. "We all love each other now, which is what family members are supposed to do."
Linda Kramer and Colleen O'Connor in Washington, D.C.
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