Children Of Monticello

PrintPrintEmailEmailAll graveyards are sacred ground, the one at Monticello no more sacred than any other. As an acknowledged descendant of Thomas Jefferson, I have the birthright to be buried in the family graveyard at Monticello near the spot where we buried my father last year and my mother the year before. Yet in the sadness of returning to Monticello time and again over the years to visit the graves of relatives or to bury one of them, even as I have grown older and become more aware of what an intimate and powerful place a family graveyard is, I have not until recently recognized how sad it is for a family with a history reaching back as far as my own, a family to which I am in fact related, not to have a graveyard of its own or the right to share ours. While my fifth great-grandfather and great-grandmother and great-uncles and aunts and my own parents are buried in a family plot visited by more than a half-million people a year, the family of Sally Hemings, with whom Thomas Jefferson had a relationship for 36 years after the death of his wife, has no known graveyard.

Much has been written during the last couple of years about the dispute over whether or not Jefferson fathered his slave Sally Hemings’s children. That after 200 years Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings remains a “controversy” says a great deal about how short a distance we have come, and it presents his descendants—on both sides of the family—with a challenge for the future. Two hundred years of argument among historians, descendants, and the public have come down to a halfacre of wooded ground on a gently sloping hillside at Monticello, and this is appropriate, because the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson has always been about blood and race and land.

Once consigned to a footnote in the history books or at best a few paragraphs in Jefferson biographies, the story of Hemings and him is by now well known, the subject of talk shows, documentaries, even a mini-series. Yet as familiar as the story of the two may seem, we are only now beginning to agree on a new version of our history. Even as we explore a new understanding of Jefferson the Founding Father and Jefferson the man, the tensions within his family still swirl. The contemporary story of the argument within his family now matters as much as the 200-year-old story of Tom and Sally.

This is not just a family squabble. That the stakes are very high is reflected in the story of the two most recent family reunions at Monticello. The last two years have left us with questions that we must answer at the 2001 reunion. When we meet this May, the decisions reached by my side of the family will reverberate far beyond the hotel banquet room in Charlottesville where speeches will be made and votes taken. We all are aware that the world is waiting and will be watching what we say and what we do, as we determine the future of that half-acre of hillside.

Monticello is owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation; the graveyard, though on the grounds, is independently owned by descendants of Jefferson and administered by their Monticello Association. I am the Jefferson descendant and member of the Association who invited the descendants of Jefferson and Hemings to be guests at the last two Monticello family reunions. I have been a member of the Monticello Association since reaching adulthood 35 years ago. But I didn’t invite the descendants of Sally Hemings to be guests at the reunion until the controversy came to a full boil after the release of DNA findings two years ago—and until I met my Hemings cousins in person.

When I walked into the studio in Chicago to do The Oprah Winfrey Show in November of 1998,1 sat between Oprah and my sister Mary and looked at the audience. The first two rows were filled with more than 25 of them, my cousins. I was overwhelmed by the family resemblance in many faces I was seeing for the first time in my life. I nearly lost it when my cousin Shay Banks-Young came into the studio with cameras running and hugged Mary and me. On the spot, I decided to invite my Hemings cousins to the reunion, and I did it, there on the Oprah show. I have spent the last couple of years trying to get the descendants of Sally Hemings recognized by my family as who they are: descendants of Thomas Jefferson.