Among the Common Ground Awards that will be given out tonight is one inscribed to:
“The Descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: David Works, Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen For their work to bridge the divide within their family and heal the legacy of slavery in the United States”
And therein lies quite a tale.
David Works, Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen are descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Shay, a black woman and Julia, a white woman, trace their roots to the sexual relationship between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings; while David’s ancestry comes from Jefferson and his wife (and Sally’s half-sister) Martha. When historian Fawn Bodie’s biography titled “Thomas Jefferson–An Intimate History” finally exposed the long-hushed up secret of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally, it also lit the fuse for a family feud. Almost three decades after Bodie’s sensational book, a 1998 DNA study confirmed that Sally Hemings had at least one child by a Jefferson man, though not necessarily Tom. The media covered the story extensively, as did talk shows and scandal sheets. Pressured by public attention it had never had to deal with before, the Monticello Association, a 700 member group of Jefferson descendants that holds annual reunions at Jefferson’s home and determines the residence requirements for the graveyard, invite the Hemings family to the reunions as guests, but then voted against allowing their permanent membership in 2002.
David Works admits that he resisted including the Hemings, telling NPR talk show host Michelle Martin that it was a visceral reaction based on a combination of defensiveness and bigotry. Deciding that he and others had behaved badly, Work eventually decided to research the Hemings’ claims, reading the original 1998 DNA study as well as a contradictory report issued in 2000. He felt that the truth could no longer be denied. “When you put it all together, the simplest and most likely answer was that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children,” he now says. In 2003, David and the other Monticello Foundation members who supported the membership of the Hemings family began The Monticello Community, a Hemings and Jefferson lineage group that hosts gatherings for “descendants of the various families with connections to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation.”
David, Shay, and Julia are now working together. Having managed to overcome the suspicion and distrust within their own family, they seek to make the reconciliation among Jefferson’s descendants a model for dialogues about race and the legacy of slavery across the culture and the country. Because David Works had the courage and the fairness to get past his biases, admit the truth, and try to right a centuries-old wrong, and because Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen were able to offer understanding, forgiveness and cooperation, the family feud is on the way to healing, and America can finally begin to understand the complexities and contradictions of the man who wrote The Declaration of Independence. As Julia Jefferson Westerinen says, “We want to heal the racial scars of this nation.”
They are off to a good start.