Ethics Heroes: Thomas Jefferson Descendants David Works, Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen

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.

9 thoughts on “Ethics Heroes: Thomas Jefferson Descendants David Works, Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen

  1. Thanks for taking note of the award! Just a correction, the awards were held at the National Geographic Society but are part of Search for Common Ground.


    ~Sydney Smith

  2. These people have NO proof that TJ fathered ANY slave child. For details of the conduction of this DEFECTIVE DNA Study (I assisted Dr Foster), click on: and Read the Scholars Commission Report (NO finding of parantage by TJ of slave children) and read the book reviews there.

    The public is being “CONNED.” Send your complaints to Monticello and Annette Gordon-Reed and ask for PROOF………they don’t have it.

    Herb Barger
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

    • The DNA test showed that a male Jefferson fathered the Hemings kids. I’m familiar with the arguments that it may have been another Jefferson—I think that is possible, but the vast bulk of the evidence, what we know about Jefferson and Hemings, plus the fact that she was his dead wife’s half-sister, make it likely by a preponderance of the evidence standard that Jefferson and Hemings shared offspring. I wouldn’t call that a con. I’d say you are in denial.

      • The “fact that she (Sally Hemings) was his (Thomas Jefferson’s) dead wife’s half-sister,” is by no means, a “fact.”
        I am not a professional historian, nevertheless, I was the first person to research the origins of the Hemings/Wayles families.My work was published in “Anatomy of a Scandal: Thomas Jefferson and the Sally Story” published in 2002.
        It is certainly “possible” that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings, but the “half-sister” story has no basis in reality.

        • I’ll agree that it is not universally accepted by historians that Sally was Martha’s half-sister. It is the majority consensus, however…it is as incorrect to say that it has “no basis” in reality than to call it a “fact.” Worse, in fact: it does have a basis in reality. It is impossible be be certain whether it is a fact, but it could be, and based on what I’ve read, probably is.

          It is also more than “possible” (why the quotes?) that Jefferson fathered children with Hemmings: after all, there were children, and they came from somewhere. I don’t understand where the adamant resistance to the idea comes from, however.

  3. Jack you do not have the facts that I as Dr Foster’s assistant have. You are not aware that he designed this to show a match by not telling Nature of the other Jefferson family information that I had given him. If he had there would be no way they could have headlined, “Jefferson fathers slave’s last child.” As you possibly are aware, there is NO way to distinguish between Thomas and any other Jefferson DNA………NO way they can say it was Thomas. Please read the Scholars Commission report from http://www.tjheritage and the books recommended.

    It is a con job arranged to paint TJ in a bad light.

    Herb Barger

    • Herb, I know the headline is wrong (and most people don’t); I know there is no way that it can be determined that Thomas, and not another male Jefferson, was the father. I think those facts have been publicized, though I agree that the public and the media have not gotten this straight. I find it extremely plausible—likely, in fact— that Thomas was the one, but I acknowledge that reasonable people could conclude otherwise.

      Jefferson was a flawed man of his time, and this wasn’t the only evidence of that. His contributions to thought and America are secure. That’s all that really matters now.

    • Whether it’s a “con job” or not, Mr. Barger, most of us would agree it paints the Thomas Jefferson of Monticello in a GOOD light. We use that light to guide our feet out of the divisive darkness onto a path we can walk together.

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