A cemetery here is a symbolic battleground in a 200-year-old controversy: Whether Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the nation, and his slave Sally Hemings shared a past, and whether their descendants will lie together in eternity.
CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston reports that for the first time since Jefferson's death 170 years ago, the two families returned, together, to his beloved Monticello - an invitation pressed by family rebel Lucian Truscott.
Truscott, a Jefferson descendant, says, "They were panic-stricken knowing that you [the media] were coming! They did it for P.R. reasons, but now the door's open and it's not going to close."
What opened the door was modern science. DNA tests linked Thomas Jefferson to Sally Hemings' youngest son, but not to other Hemmings descendants - which doesn't seem to matter to them.
Shay Banks-Young, a Hemings descendant, says, "My mother knew her great-great-grandmother. She was the daughter to Madison Hemmings. She knew who she was. No one's got to tell me who we are."
Retired Gen. John Q. King says, "We stand by the oral history which has been passed down to us from previous generations."
Robert Golden, another Hemings descendant, says, "We want our rightful place in American history."
But before inviting Hemings descendants to join their exclusive association with burial rights, many Jefferson relatives want a more complete study. Scott Shackelford says, "I would like to see the truth followed wherever it leads us."
Robert Gillespie of the Jefferson family's Monticello Association says, "We don't want to make a quick decision."
With or without DNA evidence, for Jefferson purists to believe the Hemmings connection it might take nothing less than Jefferson's ghost rising up from his grave and saying, 'Yes, I fathered Sally Hemmings' children.'
Clearly that's not going to happen. But if the association does accept the Hemmings family, they could renew a pledge Thomas Jefferson was not able to fulfill.
"It will make the words of the Declaration of Independence come true," says Julia Jefferson Westernin. "All men are created equal."
A lesson for Monticello - and America.
©1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff