- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

CHARLOTTESVILLE Contending that hard evidence trumps "oral history," descendants of Thomas Jefferson yesterday voted overwhelmingly against allowing the kin of Jefferson's slave, Sally Hemings, into the family organization.
In a closed meeting, the Monticello Association voted 67-5 to exclude the offspring of Hemings, who is reputed to have borne children by Jefferson, and keep the association's membership roll restricted to Jefferson's descendants through his daughters Martha and Maria.
The claim of Jefferson paternity, first raised by his political opponents, has never been established. Many Jefferson scholars scoff at it.
DNA tests conducted in 1998 on DNA material from Jefferson family males showed a male in Thomas Jefferson's family possibly the third president, but more likely his nephew fathered Sally Hemings' son Eston.
The association also rejected a proposal included in an overall report by a special advisory committee to set up a new organization open to the Hemings and descendants of slaves and workers at Monticello.
"Even though the intentions were good, we voted against officially supporting an umbrella organization because that might have created the public perception that the Hemings were separate but equal" to Thomas Jefferson's descendants, said Steve Moyer, a past president of the association.
The report was compiled by a committee of scholars appointed by the association to study the issue of Jefferson's paternity of Hemings' descendants. They concluded that "there is insufficient evidence to establish that members of the Hemings family were descendants of Mr. Jefferson as that status is defined in law and any genealogical standards."
The committee was formed at the behest of John Works Jr., a former Monticello Association president who has been a staunch opponent of admitting the Hemings descendants.
Lucian Truscott IV, a supporter of the Hemings claims, displayed a photograph of a black man with a zipper across his mouth, which he said Mr. Works had sent to him by e-mail. Mr. Truscott offered the photograph as an exhibit to be included in the minutes of the meeting and questioned Mr. Works' motive in sending it.
Mr. Works later said he regretted sending the photograph, which he called "insensitive." He said he merely intended to remind Mr. Truscott of a pledge association members had made not to discuss the Hemings issue with reporters. He said Mr. Truscott had broken the pledge.
"I just sent that as a reminder to keep his mouth shut," Mr. Work said. "I regret that it was a black face. If it had been a white face I would have used that instead."
Shay Banks-Young, a Hemings descendant, complained that the association has refused to release the committee report to her family members. "We've never seen the report," she said. "We're voting on something we've never seen."
Mrs. Banks-Young said her family has never pushed to be included in the association. "Only one person from our family has ever requested burial at Monticello. We only come to these meetings because we're invited. We're not hurt by this. Not being part of the association doesn't remove us from this family."
The Monticello Association was organized in 1913 by descendants of Thomas Jefferson to promote the third president and preserve the cemetery down the hill from the family estate where Jefferson and others are buried.
The association's annual meetings turned political in 1999, when Hemings family members began attending after the 1998 study that suggested Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings' last child.
During his presidency, Jefferson was accused publicly of fathering several of Hemings' children after his wife died. Members of Hemings' family have passed down the paternity claim through the generations.
"I'd say 95 percent of my family agree there's insufficient evidence that Thomas Jefferson sired any of Sally Hemings' children," says Mr. Works, who led a campaign to persuade its 700-plus members to vote against admission. "Until the Hemingses come up with better evidence, it is only proper to deny them membership."
The claim for admission was pressed after the 1998 study, conducted by a retired pathologist, Eugene Foster, who said he concluded that Jefferson probably had sired at least one of Hemings' children. He analyzed DNA samples from both families.
A 2000 report by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (formerly the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation) concluded that Jefferson likely fathered Hemings' last child, Eston, as well as her other five children. But the report, prepared by a doctoral candidate, was widely criticized and dismissed for its shoddy scholarship, improbable assumptions and tampered documents.
A 13-member panel of history professors, convened by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society to examine the Hemings evidence, last year concluded that the evidence is not sufficient to support the Hemings claim. The panel noted that 25 Jefferson males with similar DNA were in Virginia at the time that Eston Hemings was conceived, and any one of them could have sired him.
"The commission agrees unanimously that the allegation is by no means proven, and we find it regrettable that public confusion about the 1998 DNA testing and other evidence has misled many people," the panel said in the summary of its report, which ran more than 500 pages.
Moreover, the scholars with only one dissenter said their conclusions "range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false." Their report implicated Jefferson's younger brother, Randolph, or one of Randolph's sons as the likely progenitor of the Hemings family.
Since the report's release, the scholarly consensus has shifted from Jefferson's paternity. A proposed panel debate this year at the American Political Science Association Convention on the Jefferson-Hemings issue was scrapped for lack of scholars willing to press the Hemings claim.
The approximately 30 Hemings family members present at yesterday's meeting said their claim is valid, regardless of the association's vote.
"I don't care about Jefferson being president," said Clara Lee Fisher of Pennsylvania. Recognition by the Monticello Association "would be helpful, but membership doesn't invalidate what my dad told me that I am the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson."
This story is based in part on wire service reports.


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