- Historic Sites
Children Of Monticello
In Virginia, a quarrel is going on about who can be allowed to lie in a family graveyard. Because the family is Thomas Jefferson’s, the outcome of the dispute is important to every American.
February/March 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 1
All the Hemings descendants I have met—and over the last two years I have met hundreds—share a strong oral history, a powerful sense of family going back through the generations. As my cousin Shay Banks-Young has said to those who have questioned her being descended from Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, “No one has to tell me who I am descended from. I know who I am.” But as strongly connected as the Hemingses are to one another and to their shared history, neither they nor any other descendants of slaves from Monticello have had the same sort of intimate tie to the place that we whose ancestors are buried just down the hill from Mulberry Row, the dirt path where slave quarters once stood, have enjoyed.
For two centuries, the Hemings family history has been ignored and denigrated outright. Fifteen years ago, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation began to study the history of slave life at Monticello. This had been a serious curatorial omission: The routine at Monticello during Jefferson’s time had been dominated by the lives of slaves. There were hundreds of days when the estate’s population consisted of 3 or 4 white people and more than 100 slaves. By the time our Hemings cousins accompanied my wife and daughter and me to the 1999 reunion, the issue of whether or not to allow descendants of Sally Hemings to become members of the Monticello Association had already been simmering for a year. In 1998 it had been announced that there would be a DNA test seeking to prove or disprove the Hemings claim that Jefferson was the father of Sally’s children.
Most people knew from the beginning that the results would not have the same finality as those in a conventional DNA test without intervening generations. But everyone also knew that if the test came back with positive results, it would provide powerful support to the Hemings families’ claims.
The Monticello Association met in May 1998, when the test results were due to be released within six months, and Robert Gillespie, then the Association’s president, announced that if the DNA tests were “authoritatively established, the Association will have no option but to allow membership” of the Hemingses. I was shocked by that negative choice of language. It could easily have been phrased differently—for example: “If the DNA results are at all positive, we shall be pleased to recognize descendants of Sally Hemings as descendants of Thomas Jefferson and welcome them into the association.”
The statement that the Association “will have no option” implied that the Association would be legally constrained by its constitution and bylaws to accept Hemings descendants as members. This made me wonder what exactly were the criteria for membership. So I looked up the constitution and bylaws, and sure enough, I found this on the first page: “ ARTICLE III — Membership . . . Any lineal descendant of Thomas Jefferson who applies for membership, and annually pays dues as stated in the By-Laws of this Association, shall be a Regular Member of the Association. . . .” Only those 33 of the 93 words in that section of the article address membership criteria; the rest of the paragraph was largely concerned with the payment of dues.
Until Hemings descendants began applying, membership was confirmed or denied through a loosely run honor system. Members like myself have not been required to provide any documentation whatsoever, nor was I required to produce any when I registered my daughter as a “Regular Member” of the Association. After Lilly was born in 1994, I simply wrote “Lilly Randolph Truscott” on my annual dues statement under “Births,” added her birthdate, and mailed in our dues. I realized that if I wrote “Daisy Truscott” on my next dues statement, one of our cats would become a member too.
Why are these stipulations so lax? The constitution and bylaws were amended by a ballot of all regular members in 1952 to entitle spouses of lineal descendants to burial in the Monticello graveyard. This was a year when black citizens of Virginia were excluded not only from private organizations like country clubs (or the Monticello Association) but from hotels, motels, and restaurants. Their children couldn’t attend public schools with white children, nor could they attend Jefferson’s University of Virginia. In 1953 it would have been inconceivable that a day would come when Hemings descendants might apply for membership.
Most of the members at the 1998 reunion weren’t alarmed by the DNA tests. They maintained that one or both of the “Carr nephews” had fathered Sally’s children. Samuel and Peter Carr were the sons of Jefferson’s sister, Martha Jefferson Carr, and they were taken in briefly by Jefferson after their father died in 1773. Their reputation as passed down to me was that of “rascals,” and their proximity to Sally Hemings when they vis- ited Monticello as young men is often cited to support the theory that one or the other or both of them fathered her children. Perhaps this explains why the executive committee felt confident enough to seek a legal opinion on membership of Hemings descendants in advance of the DNA results.