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Jewish World Review May 18, 1999 /3 Sivan, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Are Jefferson's kin
snobs and racists?

(JWR) ---- (
THOMAS JEFFERSON'S descendants met last weekend in Charlottesville, Va., as they have for the past 86 years, but this time there were a few unfamiliar faces at the table.

Some 35 members of the Hemings clan -- descendants of Jefferson's most famous slave and putative mistress, Sally Hemings -- attended the annual event at the invitation of a group of Jefferson's descendants who want to extend membership in the exclusive Monticello Society to Hemings' heirs.

Last November, an article in the prestigious British science journal Nature claimed new proof that at least one of Hemings' children was indeed a Jefferson. Stories about Jefferson and the fair-skinned Hemings (reportedly the half sister of Jefferson's dead wife) first appeared in the press in 1802, while Jefferson was still president, attributed to a disgruntled former employee.

But prior to the Nature article, most historians regarded the rumors as mere conjecture. With DNA evidence pointing to a link, however, the press treated the Nature article story as if it were definitive confirmation of Jefferson's paternity.

The actual evidence presented showed only that descendants of Sally Hemings youngest son, Easton, were genetically linked to Thomas Jefferson's paternal uncle, Field Jefferson. Because the researchers employed a technique that relied on genetic markers on the male Y chromosome -- and Thomas Jefferson had no known male heirs -- they had to substitute descendants of Field Jefferson's family for Thomas Jefferson's in order to do their DNA analysis.

Although the headline claimed "Jefferson fathered slave's last child," the link the article proved was far more tenuous. Researchers were able to demonstrate, for example, that Jefferson could not have been related to the heirs of Thomas Woodson, the Hemings child whom he was accused of having father by critics in his own time. They also ruled out paternity for Hemings' sons from either of Jefferson's two nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr, who lived at Monticello during Jefferson's time.

Only Easton's descendant bore any genetic similarity to a Jefferson, and then only to one of Field Jefferson's five progeny who were tested.

Given this weak claim, it's easy to understand why Jefferson's descendants might resist accepting this research as proof that the Hemings' descendants are indeed their biological cousins.

On the other hand, it seems the Jeffersons might be a little more generous in recognizing some kinship with the descendants of slaves who were an integral part in the life of the Monticello they so revere.

It is unlikely that scientists will ever prove -- or disapprove -- to all parties' satisfaction that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings' children. But there is no question that Jefferson exploited an institution he claimed to abhor.

Unlike George Washington, who also voiced discomfort with slavery despite owning slaves, Jefferson did not free all his slaves on his death.

Washington's will stipulated that his own slaves were to be given their freedom immediately and his wife's slaves on her death. Washington's will also provided funds for the care of his former slaves who were either too old or too young to work. Jefferson, however, freed only Hemings and her five children on his death. The rest of Jefferson's slaves were sold six months after he died to pay his debts.

One of the concrete benefits accorded members of the Monticello Society is the right to buried in the historic graveyard on the property. Why shouldn't the descendants of slaves who built and worked at Monticello during Thomas Jefferson's lifetime be given that same privilege? Would it really be too much to ask that Sally Hemings' descendants be granted the right to rest in peace next to the progeny of the master she was forced to serve in life?

Theresa Shackelford, a member of the Monticello Society, told reporters following the weekend controversy: "I am for any lineal descendent of Thomas Jefferson, be they black, white or purple, being buried in the graveyard.

We're snobs, but we're not racists." Maybe it's time the Jeffersons got over their snobbery and made room at the table for those to whom slavery inextricably linked to their family.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate