• U.S.

Thomas Jefferson: A Family Divided

11 minute read
Anita Hamilton

Late one afternoon in May, a large group of people wearing name tags gathered under the shade of a giant tulip poplar tree on the south terrace of Monticello. As the last of the day’s tourists were taken by shuttle bus down the winding, single-lane road leading away from the hilltop home, this lingering band nibbled on cheese cubes and sipped red wine as they admired the building’s imposing white columns and soaring rotunda. These lingerers were more than tourists, more than guests. They were Jefferson’s family. Many breathed a sigh of relief that the 90°F midday heat was giving way to such a perfect spring evening.

The good weather wasn’t the only thing putting them at ease. This was the first time in six years that the Monticello Association, which comprises some 700 descendants of Jefferson, had held its annual reunion without a horde of reporters and photographers in attendance–or the extended family members who had triggered the controversy. The once obscure association, which administers the graveyard at Monticello, got caught in a media storm in 1998, after a DNA study confirmed to the satisfaction of many that a male member of Jefferson’s family had fathered at least one child with a mulatto slave named Sally Hemings (she gave birth to at least six, and possibly seven, children in all). If that Jefferson was the third President, as many historians believe, it means at least some of Sally Hemings’ descendants were Thomas Jefferson’s too. After a very public invitation on The Oprah Winfrey Show in November 1998 by an association member, dozens of Hemings began attending the group’s annual reunion, albeit as guests, not members.

Getting invited, as it turned out, wasn’t the same as being welcome. While a handful of association members supported the Hemings’ inclusion, most did not. In 2002, the group voted 74 to 6 to deny them full membership. The already strained relations turned decidedly frigid last year when the association restricted the number of Hemings allowed to attend its reunion and attempted to bar them from setting foot inside the graveyard at Monticello. Paulie Abeles, the wife of the association’s president at the time, even admitted to having secretly infiltrated an online discussion group that the Hemings had been using, in order to spy on their messages. “It was just an ugly, ugly situation,” says Lucian Truscott IV, the Jefferson descendant and association member who originally invited the Hemings.

So, what began as an extended-family reunion has disintegrated into a bitter family feud between Jefferson’s white family and his black one. For the first time since the DNA results came out, not a single Hemings attended the association’s annual reunion this past May. “Nobody wants to be where they aren’t wanted. The environment felt stuffy and very formal,” says Shannon Lanier, a Hemings who works as a TV production assistant in New York City and co-authored a book about the family called Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family. Instead, last year the Hemings began holding their own reunions at Monticello, complete with a sunrise graveyard service at the recently discovered slave burial site on the estate.

It would be easy to chalk up the entire family squabble to racism. After all, a primary reason the Hemings liaison was widely doubted before the DNA results were published was that testimony from former black slaves was dismissed by white historians as unreliable gossip. Blacks were not the only ones who supported the story, however. Numerous white journalists in Jefferson’s time reported the story and believed it to be true. Jefferson’s fellow Founding Father John Adams, who had seen Hemings’ beauty firsthand (she was known as “Dashing Sally”), also seemed to believe that Jefferson had had an affair with her and called it a “natural and almost unavoidable consequence of that foul contagion in the human character–Negro slavery.” But even today, several Jefferson descendants interviewed by TIME said they could not believe that he would become sexually involved with a slave, even one as young and beautiful as Hemings. “Jefferson could date any eligible woman in the world,” says John Works, a white descendant. “Why would he have an affair with a 15-year-old slave?”

While the standoff underscores America’s continuing struggle to come to terms with the legacy of slavery, the controversy is as nuanced as the many shades of “black” that the present-day Hemings family embodies. In the end, the divisive reunions of the association actually helped create new family bonds among the very people it excluded–and motivated a few Jeffersons to cross the racial divide and embrace their once distant cousins.


According to the Constitution of the Monticello Association, founded in 1913, one of its missions is “to protect and perpetuate the reputation and fame of Thomas Jefferson.” Patrilineal pride runs high. Matthew Mackay-Smith, 71, a retired horse doctor from White Post, Va., who attended this year’s reunion wearing a bright red tie imprinted with Jefferson’s signature, declares, “I’ve never shied away from acknowledging and treasuring my connection to the great man.” Nat Abeles, a former president of the group, says he proposed to his wife Paulie at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.

The association’s primary task is to maintain the graveyard at Monticello. Located just down the hill from the mansion, the half-acre plot is enclosed by an ornate wrought-iron fence and dominated by a granite obelisk that marks the Founding Father’s grave. A key benefit of membership is the chance to be buried within a stone’s throw. Much of the battle between the Hemings and the Jeffersons has centered on that privilege.

Several members of the association have become empathetic with the other side of the family. John Works’ brother David Works is one of those converts. An eighth-generation descendant of Jefferson, he says of the connection, “I bragged about it as a kid.” When the Hemings first showed up at an association meeting, in 1999, “I was really turned off by the press and what I perceived to be the Hemings’ really pushy approach. We just gave them ugly looks and were generally surly and mean,” says the computer-systems administrator from Denver. “Because of the nastiness of the fight, I never got back to the facts of the argument.” Then two Christmases ago, he decided to sit down and research the facts by reading the DNA study by Dr. Eugene Foster in the scientific journal Nature as well as a report issued in 2000 by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs the Monticello estate. Works’ conclusion: “When you put it all together, the simplest and most likely answer was that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children.”

Since then, Works has forged numerous friendships with the Hemings, communicating with them through an e-mail group that about 50 Hemings and 10 sympathetic Jeffersons use to broadcast everything from baby announcements to their views on George W. Bush. As someone who has observed the family dynamics of both clans, Works remarks, “On the Hemings side, everything is always friendly. It’s a lot more fun on this side of the fence.”

But it’s a difficult fence to cross. In fact, David Works’ brother John, an investment banker in Denver, has been the most vocal opponent of the Hemings’ quest to be acknowledged by the association. “They thought they could bulldoze their way into the family,” says John Works, who admits that the disagreement with his brother over the Hemings has fractured an already strained relationship. Responding to charges that the association is excluding the Hemings for racial reasons, he says, “Absolutely not. Ninety-three percent of the family can’t be racist,” he says, referring to the portion who voted to exclude the Hemings. “It’s impossible.”


To explore the matter more deeply, John works helped form a separate organization called the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which commissioned a study by 13 university scholars to assess the likelihood that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children. In 2001 the group concluded, by a vote of 12 to 1, that his parentage was unlikely. One author of the study, Professor Lance Banning of the University of Kentucky, says, “The case for his paternity is not without its chinks and limitations.”

Chief among Banning’s doubts is the fact that the DNA test was not a true paternity test, which would have required exhuming Jefferson’s remains as well as those of Hemings’ children to get DNA samples. The test that was done proves only that a Jefferson male, not necessarily Thomas, was the father, and there were other adult males in Jefferson’s family who lived nearby. What’s more, there are several documented denials of the relationship, by Jefferson’s former overseer at Monticello and Jefferson’s daughter, granddaughter and grandson. Jefferson himself never acknowledged the sexual relationship.

Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor at New York Law School, is one of many scholars who have concluded that there is enormous support for the case that Jefferson and Hemings were intimately involved. Her 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, provides a critical analysis of the historical evidence supporting the liaison (see box). In reviewing Jefferson biographies that dismissed the relationship, Gordon-Reed says, “I realized that a lot of what they said was based on prejudice, and they were not taking the words of black people seriously.” One example is the skepticism with which historians assessed an interview with Madison Hemings, one of Sally’s children, which was published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. In the interview, Madison states that his mother was Jefferson’s “concubine” and that Jefferson was the father of all her children. “We were the only children of his by a slave woman,” he said.

It was not until the DNA study was released in Nature in 1998 that the tide began to turn among historians. Although the article was misleadingly titled–the headline read JEFFERSON FATHERED SLAVE’S LAST CHILD, when in fact the study concluded solely that a Jefferson male had fathered that child–it provided the missing link that many historians needed. And there was other evidence: records indicate that Jefferson was at Monticello at the time of the conception of all of Hemings’ children; Israel Jefferson, another slave at Monticello, corroborated Madison Hemings’ story that he was the son of Jefferson and Hemings; and John Hartwell Cocke, one of the founders of the University of Virginia, wrote in his diary in 1853 and 1859 that Jefferson had a slave mistress. “I feel a bit stupid that I felt otherwise,” says Philip Morgan, a professor of early American history at Johns Hopkins University, who once doubted the relationship. “I should have picked up on it sooner.”


Shannon Lanier, who is black, had a very personal reason to accept the story all along. His mother had told him as a child that he was related to the third President. Descended from Hemings’ son Madison, Lanier recalls standing up in his first-grade class in Atlanta and announcing his presidential heritage: “I said, ‘Thomas Jefferson was my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.’ The teacher told me to sit down and stop telling lies.”

Despite the chilly reception at the Monticello Association reunions, one person Lanier met there has turned out to be not just a relative but also a good friend. Julia Westerinen, 69, looks white, but she is descended from Sally Hemings’ youngest son, Eston. Growing up in Madison, Wis., in the 1930s and ’40s, Westerinen was not allowed to play with black children. “My parents told me to stick to my own kind,” she says. Even as an adult, she realized that her friendships with blacks had been superficial. “I thought we were friends, but I never had them over to my house, and they never had me to theirs,” she says. She never knew of her ancestor Eston. That is because Eston was light-skinned enough to pass for white. In order to hide his connection with his darker-skinned Hemings relatives, he changed his name to E.H. Jefferson and cut ties with his black family. Westerinen finally discovered her connection in 1974, after Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, a biography by Fawn Brodie, uncovered the details of the Hemings family.

When Westerinen met her black cousins at the Hemings reunion in 1999 she was finally able to embrace her biracial heritage. “My life has changed a lot,” says Westerinen, an artist, who lives with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and 11-year-old granddaughter in a gray-shingled house with white trim in Staten Island, N.Y. She organized the first Hemings reunion, in July 2003, and has joined up with Shay Banks-Young, who is black and descended from Madison Hemings, to give talks about race relations. “I have a new mission in life, which is to expose the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done. We want to heal the racial scars of this nation.” As for the association members who still won’t acknowledge the Hemings’ heritage, she says, “If they want to hold on to their prejudices, then let them. We’re moving on.”

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