- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — At the call for pictures, members of Thomas Jefferson’s family and descendants of his slaves once again crowded between columns of the president’s hilltop estate to beam and hug for the cameras.

But unlike previous reunions, the smiles this weekend remained after the cameras stopped clicking.

Weary of arguing with Jefferson family leaders who never accepted their claims of kinship, slave descendants have begun to gather here on their own. Finally, organizers said, they can celebrate in peace.

“We just got tired of people saying, ‘We don’t want you here,’” said Michele Cooley, a slave descendant from Baltimore who helped organize the event from Friday to yesterday.

Monticello has been an especially chilly place during the past few years for the family of Sally Hemings, a house servant whom many believe was Mr. Jefferson’s mistress.

Since a genetic link was established between the Hemingses and Jeffersons in 1998, Jefferson family members have sponsored studies that disputed the Hemingses’ ties to the third president and refused them membership in the exclusive Monticello Association.

The debate about the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings grew so nasty at a May reunion that some Jefferson family members who supported the Hemingses vowed never to come back. Twelve of them came this weekend.

The reunion this weekend was exactly what slave descendant Mary Esther Jefferson always wanted.

“No politics, no note-taking, nobody waving the Roberts Rules of Order at us,” she said with a laugh.

Under the bright Virginia sun, the 115 cousins clambered up the mountainside to walk through the grand estate their ancestors helped build. They viewed slave burial sites and traded old family photos of common ancestors.

“Welcome home,” said Dan Jordan, who runs the nonprofit foundation that owns Monticello.

Monticello was once a village in itself. Mr. Jefferson kept as many as 130 slaves here to feed and clothe his family, tend his garden and build his furniture.

Tony Medley, 38, who had never seen the place, didn’t expect the vast garden and tree-lined walkways that are not shown in the engraving on the back of the nickel. Needing a break, he stepped into the bustling gift shop and picked his way past bottles of Monticello wine and canned corn relish in search of an aspirin.

“Awesome, just awesome,” Mr. Medley said. “I could get used to living here.”

Through the generations, some branches of the Hemings clan passed down stories about their relationship with the father of the Declaration of Independence.

In others, the stories were hushed or buried altogether until inquisitive children grew up and started asking questions about the name “Jefferson” scratched in the back of the family Bible.

While a genetic link with Jefferson’s family has been shown in only one of Sally Hemings’ sons, Eston, many of the other families also say they are related because their oral history tells them so.

Over hamburgers, baked beans and butterscotch cookies on Saturday, Hemings cousins rolled out long posters of the genealogies they’ve been researching.

Mary Jefferson, an Eston descendant, said her parents and grandparents tried to forget their slave past in an attempt to pass as white.

“In the ‘40s and ‘50s, if people knew they had any black blood, they wouldn’t have gotten the jobs they had,” she said. “They wouldn’t have been able to live where they did.”

But even now, among the multicolored sea of faces of those descended from the Monticello slaves, Hemings descendant J. Calvin Jefferson said family similarities are obvious.

“It’s fascinating, we’re all type-A people — argumentative, competitive,” he said.

Mr. Jordan updated the family on efforts by Monticello to collect oral histories of slave descendants and find slave burial sites. For the past 20 years, the foundation has focused increasingly on the enslaved servants who made Monticello so successful.

“History, to be accurate, must be inclusive,” Mr. Jordan said.

John Works Sr., a Monticello Association member who claims lineage to one of Jefferson’s daughters, said he hopes the rest of his family will eventually come to accept the Hemingses.

“Nobody has proof, really, of direct descendance to Thomas Jefferson,” he said.

“But look around. Everyone is exchanging information and getting to know each other. That’s what a family reunion is supposed to be about.”

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