A President in the Family

Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Thomas Woodson
Byron W. Woodson, Sr.

Stop and Look Both Ways

I hear that melting-pot stuff a lot, and all I can say is that we haven’t melted.
—Jesse Jackson  1

On the last Friday in October 1998, I was working in the office of North Capitol Neighborhood Development, Inc., in Washington, D.C., when I received a call from Leef Smith of the Washington Post. The news was shocking and disappointing. Smith told me that Nature, a leading scientific magazine, had released the content of an article reporting the results of the DNA test to the all major media outlets. She informed me that Nature would publish its article the following week. Smith believed the content of the article had been leaked and thus Nature was compelled to release its article earlier than planned. She also told me that a match was found between the DNA of the Eston Hemings Jefferson descendant and the Field Jefferson descendants but not between the Field Jefferson descendants and the Woodsons. I was shocked and surprised by both the reported result and the manner in which the release was unfolding. When Ms. Smith asked me why Dr. Foster had not informed me of the results, I told her I did not know. Dr. Foster had promised to inform me of the results before the public release, but I had heard nothing from him.

Leef Smith wanted me to comment on the results, but I indicated that I wanted to collect my thoughts and call her back. I did so within two minutes. The conversation was relatively short. I told her I was pleased that the family’s assertion of the reality of the Hemings/Jefferson liaison was affirmed by the DNA test. I asked Ms. Smith if she would fax a copy of the Nature article to me. She declined to do so, and asked if I was disappointed that a match was not found between the Woodsons and the Field Jefferson descendants. I answered, “Yes.”

I was surprised and disturbed by the results. My belief that Thomas Woodson and his descendants were descendants of Thomas Jefferson was unshaken. Yet I wondered how I could put the nightmare behind me, since I had long sought finality to the family controversy. I then thought the test must have been a ruse. Based on the vast historical record, I could not fathom how Eston could be the son of Thomas Jefferson and not Tom (Thomas Woodson). The controversy started in 1802 with Tom. If the test was a ruse, however, then the force of deceit was stronger than I was willing or able to fight. Those were my initial thoughts.

Trena was in Washington on business; we went to lunch. I didn’t mention the phone call from Leef Smith during lunch, but afterwards I told her. We returned to my office. Trena decided to obtain a copy of the Nature article. Though the journal is published in London, she discovered that Nature had a downtown Washington office; she called and asked for the article. Within minutes, we had a copy. It was easier than I expected. Trena read the article while I tried to get some work done.

SURPRISE ENTRY

As Trena commented on the reported test results, it became clear that was not one article but two. One was written by Eugene Foster and Chris Tyler-Smith. That was no surprise. Then I looked at the other pages and saw Joseph Ellis’ name at the top in bold letters. Nature, ostensibly an objective scientific magazine, had distributed an article by historian Ellis to the press corps! This was an absolute surprise. I was outraged, disgusted, and repulsed by the connection between a Jeffersonian historian and Nature before the scientific results were released to the public! The connection was in my view a violation of Nature’s alleged objectivity. (Indicted suspects are not allowed in the jury room, are they?) Professor Ellis was certainly not an objective observer of the controversy. How could the results meet objective standards if the parties reporting the results represented the antithesis of them?

Trena reached Dr. Foster by phone and asked why the test results had been dumped into the media instead of first being printed in Nature. His answer matched Leef Smith’s; an alleged leak had caused the information to be released prematurely. He did not give a cogent explanation for not calling us before the media got hold of the reported results, but he expressed sorrow for not calling. I asked Dr. Foster if he knew how Joseph Ellis was selected for the peer review role, as I assumed that his article was a conclusion of a peer review process. Dr. Foster pointed out that Ellis was not a part of the peer review, which was performed by geneticists. Ellis’ role was included to provide historical interpretation. It became clear that Foster, who had organized the project, had not brought Ellis into the picture, nor did he know when Ellis entered the picture or what influence he may or may not have exerted. How could Ellis constructively add historical interpretation when historians of his ilk had muddied the waters for over one hundred years ? Of course I viewed Dr. Foster’s explanation of Ellis’ role as a farce. For me, all he brought to the situation was an element of mistrust.

I called Leef Smith. I wanted to go on the record with a protest. As I expected, Smith saw nothing inappropriate in Ellis’ role as a contributor to Nature. Directing my frustration toward Leef Smith was unfair to her; she had not dragged Ellis into the picture. But I needed to create some memory of my protest and disgust.

We returned to Philadelphia that evening. The next day we received a call from Kristen Moore of the Washington Bureau of NBC. Moore had already produced a news clip about the Woodson family’s assertion of its connection to Thomas Jefferson. The news clip, which aired in September 1998 on the Today show, featured an interview with me. Ms. Moore now arranged for a camera crew to visit our Philadelphia home to tape my reaction to the reported DNA test results. The crew was scheduled to arrive the following day, Sunday.

The front page of the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer featured an article about the test results. We learned that all the other major dailies, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, also ran front-page articles. The articles quoted Joseph Ellis, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Eugene Foster heavily, though most of the Foster quotes were derived from the Nature article, not from interviews. The New York Times printed Ellis’ message on its front page: “Our heroes—and especially presidents—are not gods or saints, but flesh and blood humans.” This message was outed in spectacular form two days before the congressional election, the results of which were expected to influence President Clinton’s ability to survive the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Professor Joseph Ellis was an avid Clinton supporter, and the president’s operatives were pulling out all the stops to save the president’s job and their own as well. The Jefferson/Hemings controversy was being used for that end. I found the entire scenario repugnant.  2

The camera crew arrived Sunday afternoon. Kristen Moore stayed in Washington, interviewing me via a speakerphone placed on my living room floor. The camera crew lit up my living room like the sun. None of this helped me relax. A media novice, I made the mistake of trying to memorize a short statement. I froze on camera and wasn’t able to get out more than six words at a time. Kristen was very patient and gracious. I was thankful to her and to NBC but otherwise disgusted. I felt like a pawn in a game that someone had orchestrated. I wanted out of the nightmare.

On Monday, I traveled to Washington, D.C., and purchased a copy of U.S. News & World Report in Union Station as soon as I stepped off my train, knowing that the magazine featured an article about the DNA test results. The front cover revealed another surprise. Not only was “Jefferson and Sally” printed boldly on the cover, but the headline banner on the front cover offered “Jefferson’s Legacy by Joseph J. Ellis.” With one glance I was saturated with disgust. It seemed as if history professor Joseph Ellis had taken control of the public release of the DNA test results.  3

Predictably, Ellis’ article tied the Lewinsky scandal into the Jefferson/Hemings DNA test results. Ellis suggested Jefferson as a “character witness” for President Clinton, adding, “The dominant effect of this news will be to make Clinton’s sins seem less aberrant.” After finally acknowledging the Jefferson/Hemings liaison, then declaring a new line of resistance by calling Jefferson “too human,” Ellis ended his article: “So now Jefferson surfaces again, not only offering aid to an embattled President Clinton but also making himself useful as a most potent guide into a fresh round of more candid conversations about the way we truly were and are one people.”  4

The title of Ellis’ article was “When a Saint Becomes a Sinner.” Americans have revered and paid homage to Jefferson; but, knowing his status as a slave owner, they have never regarded him as a saint. Why would the acknowledgment of the Jefferson/Hemings liaison characterize Jefferson as a sinner? Why? We knew him as a slave owner. Slaveholding is a sin, but this label was applied long, long ago. Martha Jefferson died before Sally Hemings’ children were conceived. Adultery does not apply. Surely, thirty years after the sexual revolution, Ellis did not hope to use Jefferson and Clinton to reinstate fornication as a rallying point for sexual counterrevolution. No. Ellis looks at miscegenation as the sin in question. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected state laws against miscegenation in 1967 (not 1867); nevertheless, some Americans continue to believe the races should “stay to their own.” I resented Professor Ellis’ continued barrage of nasty labels, this time directed at Thomas Jefferson.

Television newsrooms blasted the DNA test results onto the American body politic the day before the congressional election. Joseph Ellis and Annette Gordon-Reed were in virtually every living room in America along with comments linking Jefferson, Lewinsky, Hemings, and Clinton. The day after the congressional election, television networks aired snips of a press conference hastily called so that Dr. Foster could recount the highlights of his Nature article. The broadcast gave the impression of Foster chasing the story, when in reality he had initiated the process.

Follow-up reports oversimplified the test result reports. “Scientific” tests are supposed to create absolute results, or so people think. Time reported that “Jefferson was not Thomas Woodson’s father,” though the Nature articles never stated that. The Nature articles qualified the statement, distinguishing between scientific evidence and historical evidence, effectively indicating that both needed to be evaluated to make a determination in this case. Later Nature would back off of the oversimplified headline it used.

RETREAT

Trena and I retreated to a planned vacation in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. The canyon was my treat; Las Vegas was Trena’s. Not long after our arrival we heard from our son, Byron, who had received a call in Pittsburgh from the Oprah show. Oprah’s staff picked up my name from NBC’s Today show after Kristen managed to air a dozen or so of my nervous words. Accepting my frazzled state, and reluctant to cut the vacation short, I suggested that my cousin Michele Cooley-Quille would represent the Woodson family much better than I. When Michele’s father died, she attempted to have him buried in the Monticello graveyard. The Monticello Association, descendants of the acknowledged family, rejected the request. A member of the Monticello Association, Lucian Truscott IV, made the graveyard an issue of public debate. Upon missing an all-expense-paid trip to Chicago and a chance to meet Oprah, Trena became literally ill. She called back to the East Coast to be consoled by her lifelong friends, Linda and Denise. The rented minivan I drove to the Grand Canyon served as a rudimentary ambulance.

I started down Bright Angel Trail alone the morning after our arrival at the South Rim. After fifteen minutes or so, I met a couple from Tucson, Arizona. I decided to match Paul and Nancy’s pace, which was nearly as fast as mine. They were good company. They took pictures of me with my camera. I had descended into the canyon once before, thirty-six years prior, at the age of fifteen. In November, the ranks of tourists become thin, so the canyon looked and felt very much like it did years before in August. My pace was much faster than I planned the day before. My excitement was indescribable. The canyon is rugged and majestic. I was free and careless, absorbing the most stunning sight on earth. There were no ghosts, telephones, or video cameras following me down the winding trail. I soon reached Indian Garden, a campsite, which was as far as I had journeyed on my previous trip.

After a very short respite and self-inspection, I broke out on the trail to Plateau Point. The surroundings were dry, lacking any vegetation over a foot tall. I was the only customer the two-mile trail attracted. When I reached Plateau Point, four people were there. I approached the railing at the far side of a flat rock expanse very slowly. Beyond the railing was the Colorado River, 1,300 feet straight down and barely a ribbon from my vantage point! It was awesome. The river looked tiny and innocent from Plateau Point, but over many years it had carved the absolutely immense ditch in which I was standing. I looked back and up to the South Rim and wondered if I was insane for leaving it. I knew the walk back was feasible within a span of five or six hours, but it sure didn’t look possible! I was in good company. Exchanging cameras, I found that I was out of film. Unbelievable! A guy from Florida quickly offered me a new roll. Really un…believable! A German named Hans took my picture.

Hans and I left from Plateau Point and walked more than half way up the canyon together. He was much younger than I, but not much stronger. He was mature and deliberate; though we recognized our difference in age, we had a lot in common. I told Hans I had lived in Germany as a small boy. He wasn’t surprised, having perceived that I had experienced a good deal of what the world had to offer. I returned to the South Rim a stunning two hours before my predicted arrival. After lunch and a second cup of hot tea at Angel Lodge, I could feel no effects from the climb. I made the trip on sheer tenacity, not bodily strength. If my body made the trip, it merely followed along.

WEAPONS OF MASS DISTRACTION

The trip to the Grand Canyon was a wonderful diversion. In the “real world” President Clinton, Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, and Monica Lewinsky’s former friend, Linda Tripp, competed for the title “Most Contemptuous.” The day before the congressional election, New York Times columnist William Safire suggested that the release of the Jefferson DNA test reports was timed to help President Clinton, noting that Joseph Ellis’ name had appeared along with those of other historians opposed to the president’s impeachment in a full-page paid advertisement in the New York Times. Ellis had been scrambling to save Clinton’s presidency, and he wasn’t alone. On January 16, 1999, an article appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s front page reporting the firing of the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Like Nature, JAMA printed an article favorable to Clinton. George Lundberg, the fired editor, left his post after seventeen years without mounting a defense. Were Clinton operatives using the scientific community, in particular its journals, to further their cause? American Medical Association executive vice president E. Ratcliffe Anderson, Jr. indicated that Lunderg was fired for “inexcusably interjecting JAMA into the middle of a debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine.” Anderson said that it appeared that the JAMA article release was timed to coincide with Clinton’s impeachment trial. When Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Marie McCullough called Nature, to see if there was a pattern to this she was met with denial. Laura Garwin, North American editor for Nature, declared that the release of its article, which preceded publication of its magazine and appeared just in time for Sunday pre-election newspaper coverage and the election itself, was a coincidence.  5

By some accounts, manipulation of scientific news would be the most tame of tricks the Clinton operatives performed during the months when Clinton’s fate hung in the wind. Vanity Fair printed an article by Christopher Hitchens entitled “Weapons of Mass Distraction.” Hitchens found no justification for the August 20, 1998 missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan, which were alleged to be retaliations directed at an Islamic fanatic named Osama bin Laden. Hitchens argued, forcefully, that the only purpose for the missile that destroyed a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant was to distract the press corps from Monica Lewinsky’s return to grand jury testimony. The U.S. government’s alleged justifications for the attack evaporated shortly after they were articulated. The government claimed that the plant did not make medicines but later retracted that statement. It also claimed to have a soil sample containing a chemical used to make nerve gas, but the sample failed to appear as a CIA informant who had fabricated evidence was fired. No proof of bin Laden’s connection to the pharmaceutical plant emerged. If proof existed, it should have been grounds for discussion with the Sudanese government, not grounds for a missle attack. Hitchens found the justification for the sorties that hit Afghanistan lacked substance also.  6

I am certainly not an expert on White House intrigue, but I do know a few things about a possible connection between the Lewinsky and Hemings scandals. President Clinton was not taking long walks on the beach with his dog, Buddy, while Kenneth Starr and fanatical Republicans were scrounging to remove him from office. The allegations that Clinton operatives manipulated and distracted the press corps seem to form patterns and in combination are compelling. The Lewinsky and Hemings scandals were in fact tied together in newspapers and on television at a time and in a manner that yielded maximum benefit to President Clinton, however that benefit is judged and measured. The possible political benefit is debatable, yet what other scheme could have possibly been devised to aid the president? I think they went with what they could get their hands on and Buddy missed the beach.

In January 1999 the God and Country Foundation held a press conference to announce that Nature had agreed to clarify the headline of Dr. Foster’s article, “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.” Nature composed the headline, not Foster, who had always carefully avoided the claim that the tests proved anything. To claim that a match or lack of match in genetic material through seven generations constituted proof would demand complete fidelity in each marital union, the lack of adoptions, and so on, and there was no proof of those circumstances. The God and Country Foundation used yet another argument to oppose the assertion that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings’ children, claiming that other Jeffersons could have fathered them. It did not explain why these other Jeffersons were only able to impregnate Sally Hemings when Thomas Jefferson was nearby, and the reporters attending the announcement apparently did not think to ask. Faced with the foundation’s challenge and Foster’s exactness, Nature clarified its position, attempting to distinguish between clarification and retraction.  7

I found additional fault with Nature’s presentation. The test allegedly did not find matches between the Woodsons and the Field Jefferson descendants, but it did find matches among the different Woodson lines. Foster was silent regarding the Woodsons’ matches, and Ellis’ article implied that Woodson matches had not been found, citing possible “non-paternities among Tom’s offspring.” Ellis’ article in Nature misled rather than elucidated and caused some readers to wonder why Nature had broadened its coverage to what the magazine called “William Jefferson Clinton’s sexual indiscretions.” I wrote to Nature in protest, but no one responded. Dr. Foster’s often stated goal was objectivity. Nature destroyed the prospect of objectivity by bringing Ellis into the sphere before the release of the scientific results. Dr. Foster told me he had sought out Nature, as a respected and objective scientific journal; but Nature took Foster’s quest and dove headlong into the murk of the Monica Lewinsky scandal seemingly in the president’s corner. Was there no gatekeeper, like AMA’s Anderson, to stop these or other antics?  8

THE NO-BOOK TOUR

One of the reasons some reporters gave for not including the family in coverage of the controversy was that families are liable to be “unobjective.” The press claimed that they could rely only on historians and other experts whose work had been published. Yet these experts seemed to lack any ability to distinguish fact from fiction; thus the press relied upon a meaningless standard. In February Emerge published an article I wrote about the Woodson legacy, and Ebony printed an article also. The Emerge article and the prospect of this book gave me the credentials necessary for public recognition. Newspapers and universities began to accept me as a person qualified to speak about my own genealogy. I was anxious to replace the denigration my family had suffered for decades with a genuine rather than a presumed or contrived knowledge of the family.  9

The Race Relations Institute at Fisk University invited Trena and me to present a lecture on its Nashville, Tennessee, campus. It was my first lecture; my pace was slow and my demeanor was tense. I spoke again before students at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in the Camille Cosby Center at Spelman. This lecture went well; I spoke fluidly and with more conviction. The “No-Book Tour” hit a fine stride. Still I found that people could not shake their focus on Jefferson. They lacked a vision of the treasure the real story of Monticello could reveal. I spoke about the Hemings family, the implications of the irresolvable controversy, and my mother’s research. Questions remained focused on Jefferson and the liaison.

We then drove to Greenbriar County, West Virginia, where we attempted to extend the research done by my mother and Ronald Woodson. Ronald Woodson of Texas had documented Thomas Woodson’s presence in Greenbriar County in 1807 through county records, an important contribution, since the earliest documentation my mother found of his presence was the census of 1820. The Greenbriar County Historical Society helped me pinpoint Thomas Woodson’s residence. We traveled to Brushy Ridge with a production crew from Frontline, which was filming a documentary. It was my first trip to Greenbriar County. I felt more connected than ever to Thomas Woodson’s migratory life. I could feel and see the last skirmishes with Shawnee braves, whether my eyes were open or closed, and hear the movement of Conestoga wagons along the Midland Trail. It was still snowing in the sparsely populated highlands, though the March sunshine drove temperatures into the eighties upon our return to Nashville.

Another highlight of the tour was a presentation before staff members of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, the current owner of Monticello. Trena and I were graciously welcomed, though many staffers were still in shock from recent revelations. I could tell from the faces that the group of forty or so ranged from naysayers to provocateurs to anarchists. The most entertaining were those sitting on the edge of their seats, wide-eyed and openmouthed. They were in disbelief, not at what I was saying but for being there to witness an event no one had conceived of as being possible. The presentation was fun to do. Trena and I talked for only half an hour, then answered questions, so we only scratched the surface.

Before leaving Charlottesville, we dined with Cinder Stanton, an interesting mixture of zest and understatement. To me Cinder is the embodiment of the Jefferson quotation her boss, Daniel Jordan, repeats with regularity: “We shall follow the truth wherever it may lead.” I consider Cinder to be the “Silent Sage of Monticello.” We agreed on not having all of the answers. T. J. Randolph, we conceded, was particularly perplexing, as some his statements initially formed the bedrock of denial, while Fawn Brodie used other statements made by him to lift the cover and expose the truth. I told Cinder that Fawn Brodie’s biographer was nearly finished with his work. I felt compelled to tell the women connected to the controversy as much as I could about Fawn Brodie, always feeling that the racial aspects of it were overemphasized at the expense of gender issues.

FAMILY REUNION

The annual reunion of the Monticello Association was held in May 1999 with events in Charlottesville and at Monticello. As a member of the Monticello Association, Lucian Truscott had invited the descendants of Madison Hemings, Eston Hemings Jefferson, and Thomas Woodson to the reunion during his appearance on the Oprah show the previous November. The invitation was rebellious and controversial, as the leadership of the Association was nowhere close to accepting the DNA test results as definitive or the Sally Hemings descendants as their cousins. To their dismay, inclusion of Sally Hemings’ descendants in the Monticello Association and the burial of those family members in the Monticello graveyard became a focus of media attention.

The ride to Monticello reminded me of a much earlier trip. I thought of my arrival in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1959 with cousin Lewis Woodson. I knew nothing then about the Ohio Woodsons. I didn’t know if they would feel connected to me. Who feels the need to find all of their third cousins? That trip pushed me into a new level of family connections, and the trip to the 1999 Monticello Association Family Reunion did as well.

The first relative we met upon our arrival at Monticello was Lucian Truscott. Although this was our first meeting, we recognized him from his media appearances. The media, craving a focus, honed in on Lucian Truscott and Michele Cooley-Quille, a Woodson descendant. They were perfect. Trena gave Lucian a newly minted copy of the Woodson Source Book. Within minutes we met descendants of Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings Jefferson. Hugs and kisses were thicker than the grass on the West Lawn. Shay Banks-Young, a Madison Hemings descendant, was stunningly attired in an Afrocentric gown. Julia Westerinen, an Eston Hemings Jefferson descendant, opened her arms for me as soon as I saw her. My last step into her soft grasp ended over 150 years of separation and realized the complexity of America’s past and present identities.

My Woodson cousins arrived and, with them, more embraces. Robert Golden, John King, and others were primarily from my father’s generation. I was ecstatic that they were able to be present on this auspicious occasion. In contrast, my ever-so-beautiful cousin Michele arrived with a large belly and the effusive smile of an expectant mother. The recent death of Michele’s father made her expectant motherhood seem simply divine.

Minutes flowed into hours, but at some point members of the Monticello Association walked onto the north side of the West Lawn. Daniel Jordan appeared momentarily as the arbiter, showman, and host extraordinaire. The president of the Monticello Association, Robert Gillespie, gave a speech, claiming that the Association needed more information to decide who should be considered a Jefferson descendant. Daniel Jordan spoke also.

A call went out for a group picture. A sea of photographers was on hand. At first the Sally Hemings descendants and Lucian Truscott were joined by few other members of the Monticello Association. One photographer, Jane Feldman, asked a Madison Hemings descendant, Shawn Lanier, to encourage everyone present to join in the photograph. Shawn, a student at Kent State University, launched an ebullient and effective series of pleas. The group nearly doubled in size, bolstered by Monticello Association members who did not share the skepticism of the Association’s president. Many of those who then spread out on the lawn below the West Portico steps brought their children into the scene. Most Monticello Association members who abstained were childless and gray-haired. Lucian and Michele were in the front center position before the group grew larger. A Madison Hemings descendant took a position on the new front row, holding her baby, named, with enduring reverence, Madison. While the ranks grew, photographers were taking pictures. Jane Feldman called for a cheer. The assemblage was poised to celebrate, letting out the happy cheer of a winning team. Within seconds, the paparazzi earned a day’s pay.

Photographers were ushered to the exit. The family had a few minutes to mingle before dinner was served at the historic Michie Tavern nearby. I turned to greet Robert Gillespie. He in turn indicated that he wished to meet “General King,” as he called my cousin. I introduced him to General John King as well as Robert Golden, president of the Thomas Woodson Family Association.

Descending the steps, I found Trena greeting a young lady who stood near us on the steps during the picture-taking. Ann Duck’s smile was delicate and infectious. She was a descendant of Maria Jefferson Eppes. I told her there were so many more Randolph descendants I wasn’t sure I would meet any Eppes descendants. Maria Eppes’ beauty was renowned in her day; I wondered whether it was legitimate to draw comparison between Maria and my newfound cousin, who was decidedly one of the prettiest among the group.

We also met “Nick” Coolidge, a resident of Washington, D.C. He and Trena discussed education at length, as he was dedicated to helping young people lift their horizons. He seemed a bit patronizing but otherwise genuine and delightful. Mr. Coolidge was an exception among his cousins. Many of the older Randolph descendants did not mingle or speak with descendants of Sally Hemings. He wasn’t convinced we were his cousins, but Mr. Coolidge was out for a good time, mingling with good company. When we left on the bus that took us to the parking lot, Mr. Coolidge and Trena hugged. He smiled at us and said with anticipation, “I’ll see you next year!”

The following morning we met a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer on Mulberry Row. Attention was finally directed to the Hemings family. Americans were increasingly curious about the history historians had kept hidden. Three years before, stones that had once formed the foundations of workshops and cabins on Mulberry Row were unearthed and placed to form the outlines of several foundations. Prior to the unearthing, the only surviving evidence of human life on Mulberry Row was the chimney of the joinery, which has stood alone for decades. Stone outlines are a start; I strongly favor restoration of a portion of Mulberry Row; the Philadelphia Inquirer reported my position.

The following day, the Monticello Association held a business meeting at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville. Lunch was served before business began. We arrived late, so we were not able to chat with those at our table before business commenced. It quickly became apparent that business focused on the acceptance of Sally Hemings’ descendants. Dr. Foster presented an explanation of the DNA test. He speaks deliberately, carefully qualifying statements as needed, with no inflection or exuberance. My guess is that many in the room who had not closely followed the intricacies of Y-chromosome testing and the consideration of “non-paternities” did not fully grasp Dr. Foster’s explanation. People lead busy lives and look for simple explanations. John Works, Jr., who was clearly among those resisting the inclusion of Hemings descendants in the Monticello Association, stepped up to the microphone. He aggressively forged parameters for Dr. Foster’s answer by citing a number of facts, all of which Dr. Foster had previously acknowledged, then asked, “These tests don’t prove anything, do they?” Dr. Foster responded, “No, they don’t prove anything. They don’t prove a thing.”

A few others asked questions of Dr. Foster. I was a little bored by the proceedings. I must have been looking at my dessert cup when I heard the voice of a kid at the microphone. I looked up at the chair across from me where Hunter, a young Randolph descendant, had sat through lunch. It was empty! Hunter was standing at the microphone. While Dr. Foster is surely a gentle and unimposing man, because of Hunter’s comparatively small size the scene was reminiscent of David facing Goliah. Young Hunter ventured a question that was nearly coherent, but not quite clear enough. Billy Dalton, a Madison Hemings descendant, went to the microphone in Hunter’s aid. Billy put his hand on Hunter’s shoulder, suggesting that the boy repeat the question. Hunter did, but with little improvement. Billy, however, deciphered the essence of Hunter’s frustration. Billy posed the question. “He wants to know if the tests were honest?” Hunter’s head nodded slightly in affirmation. I was simply amazed. Dr. Foster, befuddled by the simplicity of the question, could only respond with a clear and simple response, “Why, yes. Of course they were honest.”

John Works, who had pressed for Dr. Foster’s “They don’t prove anything” answer, made a motion to excuse guests from the room. Since the meeting was liable to become contentious, he argued, it should be closed to guests. News reporters had previously been banished. At that point the meeting did in fact become contentious. Guests were primarily Hemings descendants, and because the gentleman wanted them to leave, an increasingly lively debate began. Lucian Truscott queued for the microphone. When his turn arrived, Lucian blasted the motion with ridicule. He claimed that the motion was moot, because it could not achieve its aim of keeping the debate secret. A closed-door meeting could not be achieved, because Lucian promised to walk out into the hallway and tell the reporters everything that was said.

A formidable contingent of reporters was in fact in the hallway, poised with notepads, microphones, audiotape recorders, and video cameras. A bank of microphones had already been assembled. The New York Times, NPR, ABC, the Chicago Tribune, local television, and the local press were all represented. Leef Smith of the Washington Post was there. Lucian’s grandfather was a famous World War II corps commander. Lucian had not fallen far from the tree; his tactics were impeccable.

Discussion got ahead of the agenda by moving for the inclusion of Hemings descendants in the Monticello Association. Mary Jefferson, an Eston Hemings Jefferson descendant, rose to explain to the association that she wasn’t sure, just yet, if she wanted to join, saying she “came to check you out.” The Monticello Association voted the motion down. Consequently guests remained in the room, except for Trena and Byron, who needed to start back to Philadelphia. After we left, a vote on the inclusion issue was blocked by the president, Robert Gillespie, who promised to convene a committee to study the matter.  10

Thomas Jefferson and Robert Hemings traveled to Philadelphia in May 1776 in seven long, grueling days. We traveled home in five hours while listening to the music of Aretha Franklin and George Gershwin with the clarity of a live concert. Trena and I mentioned Nick Coolidge a few times during the drive. Inevitability was inherent in his parting message, “I’ll see you next year.”

NOTES

1. Quoted in Robert Andrews, ed., Famous Lines (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 325.

2. Dinitia Smith and Nicholas Wade, “DNA Test Finds Evidence of Jefferson Child by Slave,” New York Times, November 1, 1998, A1.

3. Barbara Murray and Brian Duffy, “Jefferson’s Secret Life,” U.S. News & World Report, November 9, 1998, 58–66 (the issue was on newstands before that date).

4. Joseph Ellis, “When a Saint Becomes a Sinner,” U.S. News & World Report, November 9, 1998, 67–69.

5. Richard Blow, “Sex Lives and Presidents,” George, February 1999, 38; Marie McCullough, “ ‘Sex,’ Politics Clash at a Medical Journal,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 14, 1999, A1, A14.

6. Christopher Hitchens, “Bill Clinton’s Weapons of Mass Distraction,” Vanity Fair, March 1999, 92–105.

7. Leef Smith, “Certainty of Jefferson-Hemings Affair Is Overstated, Critics Say,” Washington Post, January 6, 1999.

8. Eugene A. Foster and C. Tyler-Smith, “Jefferson Fathered Slave’s Last Child,” Nature, November 5, 1998, 27–28; Eric S. Lander and Joseph J. Ellis, “Founding Father,” Nature, November 5, 1998, 13–14. These articles were released to the press prior to publication on October 30, 1998, from the Washington, D.C., office of Nature.

9. Byron Woodson, “Blood for ‘Truth,’ ” Emerge, February 1999; Laura Randolph, “The Thomas Jefferson/Sally Flemings Controversy,” Ebony, February 1999.

10. As of the release date of this book, the Monticello Association has yet to decide upon opening the graveyard or the Association to those who are descended from Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.



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A President in the Family -- : Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Thomas Woodson

MLA

"Stop and Look Both Ways." A President in the Family : Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Thomas Woodson. Westport, CT: Westport, Connecticut London, 2001. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 27 Nov 2014. <http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=GR7174&chapterID=GR7174-1248&path=books/greenwood>

Chicago Manual of Style

"Stop and Look Both Ways." In A President in the Family : Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and Thomas Woodson, Westport, CT: Westport, Connecticut London, 2001. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=GR7174&chapterID=GR7174-1248&path=books/greenwood. (accessed November 27, 2014).