GEN-AFRICAN-L ArchivesArchiver > GEN-AFRICAN > 1999-05 > 0926888695
Subject: News articles on descendants of Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson
Date: 16 May 1999 21:04:55 GMT
05/13/99- Updated 11:14 PM ET
Rift runs through Jefferson family reunion
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.- Under the shade of ancient oaks, the grave of
Thomas Jefferson lies immaculately preserved, protected by a black iron
fence that his descendants erected a half-century ago. Every year,
500,000 visitors to Monticello look past padlocked gates and a gold
crest marked "TJ" to see a towering gravestone, inscribed exactly as the
great man instructed:
"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American
Independence, Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and
Father of the University of Virginia."
The grave of Sally Hemings, his slave mistress, carries no such
Sally Hemings lies in an unmarked grave, most likely under a new Hampton
Inn and its freshly paved parking lot near downtown Charlottesville. Her
probable burial site, previously unknown, was located by USA TODAY, with
the assistance of Monticello senior historian Cinder Stanton, using
19th-century deeds, wills and maps.
This weekend, Sally Hemings' descendants, emboldened by DNA tests that
appear to prove Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings' children,
will try to reclaim some of their obliterated past. They have been
invited to the annual family reunion of Thomas Jefferson's acknowledged
descendants - an event that is shaping up as an uncomfortable fight over
a family graveyard but also signals the Hemingses' emergence from
Jefferson's shadow as sort of the first family of slavery.
On Saturday, Jefferson's slave descendants and the offspring of their
former masters will reunite for cocktails at Monticello, where the
enslaved Hemings family once poured fine wine into crystal glasses for
their own kin.
It will be the first time the two sides of the family have come together
here since a slave auction at Monticello on a cold January day in 1827.
At that sale, Thomas Jefferson's grandchildren sold Sally Hemings'
brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews - but not Sally or her children,
whom Jefferson freed - to pay the late president's sizable debts.
On Sunday morning, the family will hold a memorial service at the grave
of the patriarch, beloved by both sides of the family. Then, the family
will adjourn to a hotel to discuss whether the Hemingses have a right to
join the Monticello Association, the family group, and be buried at the
family cemetery at Monticello.
Hemings' descendants will not have a vote on their fate. The decision
will be made by the descendants of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the
grandson who oversaw the 1827 slave auction. And the results are
expected to be unfavorable to the Hemingses.
The family association's leaders say the DNA evidence linking Jefferson
to Sally Hemings' descendants is not conclusive enough to admit the
"What's needed is some kind of statement by Jefferson acknowledging
Sally's children as his," says Robert Coolidge, the family's longtime
historian and keeper of its genealogical records. "That would clinch the
matter. That's what other descendants have."
He says race isn't a factor. He does not mind being buried next to a
Hemings, and the family association already has one black member, the
result of a modern interracial relationship.
The family's official position doesn't sit well with Jefferson
descendant Lucian Truscott IV, who wants the Hemingses welcomed into
the family. He says it's ridiculous to ignore DNA evidence and expect
written proof when Jefferson and others tried to cover up the
Most scholars - even those who were previously skeptical - have been
persuaded by the DNA evidence.
In November, the science journal Nature published an article showing
that a living descendant of Sally Hemings' youngest son, Eston, had the
same Y-chromosome markers as five acknowledged Jefferson family
descendants. "The simplest and most probable explanation for our
molecular findings are that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Eston
Hemings," the authors said.
"The DNA changed everything," says Peter Onuf, a history professor at
the University of Virginia. "That ended our habit of viewing Jefferson
as an isolated man of reason and Monticello as lofty ground not
connected to the social world. It's not that we have new evidence;
rather this tidbit about DNA has caused all the old evidence to be
Historians had long known that the Hemings family had a close and
intricate relationship with the Jeffersons. Sally and her brothers,
sisters, nieces and nephews held nearly all important positions at
Monticello, running Jefferson's household, nursing his children and
grandchildren and managing several shops. Jefferson spent virtually
every day of his life with the Hemings family. They even built his
The DNA evidence not only confirmed a sexual liaison that was rumored as
long ago as 1802 but certified the Hemingses as the first slaves known
to be blood kin to a president.
They are a remarkably accomplished clan on their own. Their numbers
include French chefs, professional musicians, talented craftsmen, a
lieutenant colonel in the Union Army and a California legislator.
Sally was the 10th of 12 Hemings children who lived at Monticello, and
she had six children of her own. The Hemingses were so numerous and so
much a part of the Monticello elite that they were "a separate caste" on
the estate, Stanton says.
"They were old family servants and great favorites ... I was instructed
to take no control of them," Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon said in
Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, said the Hemingses'
status "was a source of bitter jealousy to the other slaves, who liked
to account for it with other reasons than the true one: superior
intelligence, capacity and fidelity to trusts."
The Hemings clan dressed better than other slaves, and members were
sometimes paid for their work. The male Hemingses often traveled alone -
a sign of the trust placed in them. The Hemings women were the only
slaves spared field work during the grueling wheat harvest.
The Hemingses, of course, were still slaves. They were sometimes sold
and separated from their families. One of Sally Heming's grandnephews
was whipped nearly to death by a Monticello overseer. He ran away and
But within the strict boundaries of a slave society, the Jeffersons and
the Hemingses seem to have had a relationship that was generally
After Sally Hemings died in 1835, her freed son Madison moved from
Virginia to Ohio. Madison entrusted Jefferson's family to settle his
affairs: his master's grandson sold Madison's house in Charlottesville,
paid off his debts and sent the remaining money to Ohio. It's the type
of favor one might do for a friend or - dare it be said - family.
Among the most notable Hemings family members:
Elizabeth Hemings. The family matriarch, born in 1735, had at least 12
children by three men, including Jefferson's wealthy father-in-law, John
Wayles. That made Sally, one of Betty's offspring, a half sister to
Jefferson's wife, who died in 1782 and made him promise to never marry
again. Jefferson inherited Betty and her children from his father-in-law
Martin Hemings. Jefferson's ornery but loyal butler for 20 years, a
brother of Sally, was the boss of the house staff at Monticello. In
1792, he had an argument with Jefferson and asked to be sold, which he
apparently was, never to be heard from again.
Burwell Colbert. Sally's nephew took over from Martin Hemings as butler
and accompanied Jefferson nearly everywhere. Colbert was a man of many
talents. He had been foreman of the nailery. Even after becoming butler,
he glazed windows and did the most difficult painting jobs - winding
staircases and fancy carriages. He probably lived in a stone house that
Jefferson ordered built next to Monticello.
James Hemings. Sally's older brother went with his sister and Jefferson
to France to train as a French chef. In France, slavery was illegal, so
James was a free man. He traveled alone with Jefferson's money and was
paid a salary as well. But when Jefferson returned to Virginia, James
came, too, and invented a much admired cross between French and Virginia
cooking. Four of his recipes survive.
When Jefferson became president in 1801, he tried to lure James - who
was working in Baltimore - to Washington but couldn't make a deal.
Peter Hemings, another brother of Sally who was trained as a cook by
James, served as Jefferson's chef and a skilled brewer for 30 years. He
was bought for $1 at Jefferson's estate sale.
John Hemings. Sally's younger brother was perhaps Monticello's greatest
craftsman. The son of an English carpenter, John crafted furniture and
was Monticello's chief joiner, responsible for all interior woodworking.
He also made Jefferson's coffin.
Eston Hemings, the son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, was freed under
the terms of Jefferson's will. A violinist like his father, he became a
professional musician who led dance bands. He moved to Madison, Wis.,
changed his last name to Jefferson and passed as white.
His son, Lt. Col. John Wayles Jefferson - tall and red-haired, like his
father and Jefferson - served in a white regiment in the Union Army. In
the army, he met someone who knew he was descended from slaves.
According to a newspaper account, he begged them not to reveal his slave
heritage. John Wayles Jefferson later became a wealthy cotton broker in
Another of Eston's sons, Beverly Frederick Jefferson, owned hotels and a
bus service in Madison. He invented a heater to warm the feet of his bus
passengers. His son, Carl Jefferson Smith, was chief counsel of a
Madison Hemings, Eston's brother, never left the black community after
he was freed. To this day, his descendants consider themselves people of
color while Eston's consider themselves white.
Madison had 10 children. A grandson, Frederick Madison Roberts, was the
first black to serve in the California Legislature.
Several thousand descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings may
be alive today, but only a small fraction of them know of their
"It's like having a whole new family," says Julia Jefferson Westerinen,
a vice president at a New York furniture company, of learning she was
descended from Sally Hemings.
Today, Westerinen (a white Hemings) and her distant cousin, Shay
Banks-Young (a descendant of Madison Hemings and thus a black Hemings),
lecture together at colleges. They also circulate petitions that
advocate building a national museum about slavery.