Fighting for Space at the Jefferson Family Table
BY BRENT STAPLES
August 2, 1999
[W] hen Thomas Jefferson died at Monticello, the servant who fluffed his pillows for the final time was Burwell Colbert, the nephew of Jefferson's slave mistress, Sally Hemings. Sally's half brother, John Hemings, made Jefferson's coffin, and another of Sally's nephews -- the head gardener, Wormley Hughes -- dug the grave. Sally Hemings probably played a role as well, exercising at least some influence over how the Master of Monticello was laid out and put away.
Defenders of Jefferson's virtue argued for nearly 200 years that this was just platonic affection between loyal slaves and a caring master. But genetic tests last year showed that Jefferson almost certainly fathered Sally's final son, Eston, born in 1808 -- and that the Jeffersons and the Hemings were a family joined by common blood. Historians who once disbelieved this connection now find it impossible to believe that Jefferson ignored "Dashing Sally" while the two were young and vital and took her to his bed only in old age. The emerging consensus is that the two became lovers earlier and carried on longer than we yet know -- and that Jefferson probably fathered several of the Hemings children.
Jefferson is buried beneath an imposing monument in the family graveyard at Monticello, surrounded by the graves of his white descendants only. The question of whether to admit the black ones to the cemetery -- and of how to verify the family lineage -- has grown into an explosive issue for the Monticello Association, the family group that controls the graveyard. Members of that group seem to be treating this like a family squabble that is nobody else's business. But this debate reverberates well beyond the Jefferson and Hemings descendants.
The issue spilled into public view earlier this summer, when the novelist and Jefferson descendant Lucian K. Truscott 4th invited 35 Hemings cousins to the Jefferson family reunion at Monticello. This would have been an emotional gathering in any case, but it proved more so after a reporter for USA Today, Dennis Cauchon, used ancient property records to track down a possible burial place for Sally Hemings -- beneath a newly constructed hotel or its adjacent parking lot in downtown Charlottesville. The juxtaposition of Jefferson's lover in an unmarked grave and the lushly appointed cemetery where Jefferson lies at Monticello crystallized the issue at hand. At the reunion, a descendant gave a touching but yet to be authenticated account of how Sally regularly walked several miles from Charlottesville to Monticello to tend Thomas Jefferson's grave.
The association decided not to admit the Hemings group as members, at least not for the moment, calling for a special committee to study the matter. Some white members seemed to make up their minds in advance, by suggesting that the Hemings descendants needed "a paper trail," or to find a letter from Jefferson himself acknowledging Sally's children. Mr. Truscott says that older family members have threatened to quit the group -- and to decline burial at Monticello -- if the Hemings group is allowed allowed in.
Mr. Truscott is a longtime burr under the family saddle. He accused the association of "denying rights to our black cousins" and conspiring to prevent them from being buried at Monticello. He dismissed the need for more genetic testing and said that whites are admitted into the organization on little more than the say-so of their friends and parents. He argues that the association was subjecting Hemings oral history to strict scrutiny while accepting white oral history at face value.
Having invited 35 Hemingses this year, Mr. Truscott has threatened to bring 100 to the next reunion.
Geneticists have said that DNA tests announced in 1998 clinched the case that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's final son, Eston. However, genetic material linked to her first child, Thomas Woodson, did not produce a DNA match.
The white Jefferson descendants might indeed stand pat and insist on a higher threshold of evidence. But the scholarly world is moving quickly to accommodate what already seems clear -- that some of Sally Hemings's children were descended from Jefferson.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which oversees Monticello, has already recognized that the plantation was built and sustained not just by a few whites, but by 200 people, the vast majority of whom were black. Insiders also say that the foundation may soon officially acknowledge that Jefferson and Hemings had a long-term relationship, bringing its position into line with current knowledge.
The Jefferson family needs to get to the same place and get there quickly, whatever the route. What the family does will have symbolic importance that extends well beyond the Virginia countryside. If white Jeffersons cannot reach out to the black people whose ancestors built Monticello -- and especially to those who share the founder's blood -- then the prospects for harmony in this Jeffersonian Republic seem dimmer for all of us.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
Questions to consider while reading:
1. How does the title inform the piece?
2. What is the thesis and where is it?
3. What introductory technique(s) did the author use? Is the technique weaved through the essay? How?
4. Mark the transitions. Are they all mechanical?
5. Identify the methods of development.
6. What is the tone of the overall piece? Did you note any tone shifts? Where?
7. Comment on the conclusion. What can you learn from this method of closing?
8. After studying this piece, what, if anything, would you like to emulate as a writer?