Jefferson-Hemings Reunion

Shay Banks-Young
Almost 800 descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings gathered this Saturday for the first time in history.

The reunion was a timely event. Although, the Jefferson-Hemings descendants planned the reunion over a year ago, last month the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation announced that the nation's third president most likely fathered at least one and as many as six of Hemings' children.

"It's about time," said Shay Banks-Young, the reunion's event coordinator.

The foundation, which had denied the claims for years, released the report based on DNA test results.

Jefferson descendant Lucian Truscott, a long-time supporter of the Hemings family, said the situation is a nightmare for some of his white relatives.

"It makes them get up in the morning, look in the mirror, start shaving and say, 'I've got black cousins,'" said Truscott.

But it's no problem for Julia Westerinen, who was pleased to learn of her slave ancestry.

"All of a sudden, I have this enormous black family who have opened their arms to me lovingly and embraced me," said Julia Westerinen.

"This is one way to show that family's got nothing to do with color. Our family shows that," said Banks-Young. "Our genealogy is important and as African-Americans we really need to dig into our family history; that we go beyond slavery; that we come from a rich culture and we can embrace that with love and dignity."

For Michelle Cooley Quill, the report stops short because it excludes her ancestor, Thomas Woodson.

"We will not rest until it is definitively stated that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings bore seven children, the first of whom was Thomas," says Quill.

Many of Sally Hemings' descendants lived in Ohio and were buried there. The next chapter in this historic racial saga concerns the possibility of another final resting place for the current generation.

In May, the Jefferson descendants meet in Monticello, Viriginia to decide whether to finally open the Monticello cemetery to Thomas Jefferson's other family.

"I felt like I was trying to make application to the Ku Klux Klan trying to come into that group," says Banks-Young.

"Before I die, I believe I'll see that the Monticello Association will do what is correct and what is just," said Quill.

The reunion included a screening of the CBS miniseries, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal. The four-hour drama airs Sunday, Feb. 13, and Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 9 p.m.

"We don't know a lot about her so it's important, as we move into this new millenium that she be given a voice," said Tina Andrews, who wrote the screenplay for the miniseries.

"If we accept the fact that Jefferson's two families are just one big family, then that is going to lead us to the fact that in this nation, we've been separate families all these years - but we've really all the time been one," said Truscott.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation