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Descendents of Slaves and Slave Owners Gather for a Healing Family Reunion

By Gabriell DeBear Paye
July 19,2003

Can you imagine going to a well-known southern plantation for a memorial service for both slaves and their owners at a family gathering of their descendants? Can you imagine the descendants of the white slave owners issuing an apology for the abomination of slavery? Can you imagine these people acknowledging that they are all related due to the fact that white plantation owners had children by their black slaves as well as their white wives? Can you imagine these descendants of slaves and slave owners embracing, crying and calling each other family? All this and much more actually happened during the weekend of July 13-14 in Virginia at the Monticello estate of the third president of the United States ; Thomas Jefferson. You know, the man on the nickel,  the major author of the Declaration of Independence.

The Hemings Family Reunion event was hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the non-profit historical group which organizes tours of the grounds at Monticello . Although the event was primarily for the descendants of Elizabeth Hemings, Jeffersons and other family members and friends were welcomed In case you have not already read about the context of this reunion, let me briefly fill you in on the story.

Elizabeth (also known as Betty) Hemings was the daughter of an African enslaved woman and a white man named Captain John Hemings who visited the Wayles plantation where she lived. Elizabeth had 12 children, six of whom were fathered by John Wayles, the master of her plantation. John Wayles' daughter Martha Wayles Jefferson married Thomas Jefferson. When John Wayles died,  Elizabeth and her enslaved children were given to Thomas Jefferson as an inheritance. Mr. Jefferson had 5 children with his wife Martha. Martha died in 1782. After Martha's death, Thomas went to France as the United States Minister. Two of his daughters and two slaves joined him. His slave James Hemings came to learn the art of French cooking, and James' 14 year old  sister Sally Hemings, came to look after his youngest daughter Maria. Sally was the half sister of Jefferson 's wife Martha. In France Sally learned to speak and read French and was trained as a ladies maid. It was here that she became pregnant with her first child (who was said to be the son of Jefferson , born back in America and named Thomas Jefferson Hemings.) Sally went on to have a total of 7 children claiming Thomas Jefferson as their father. Sally's children were raised as slaves on Jefferson 's plantation, and were freed at the age of 21 or allowed to run away to freedom. Some of these light skinned children passed for white and blended into white society while others chose to raise their families as African Americans. The Hemings descendants come in many different skin tones.

Many historians dismissed the Hemings' family claim that they were descendants of Jefferson until 1998 when DNA evidence linked descendants of Sally's youngest son Eston to Thomas Jefferson by means of a matching Y chromosome.  Additionally many members of the family and professional genealogists have been piecing together the story, so that now it is nearly irrefutable that Thomas had at least one and probably 7 children with Sally Hemings. Back in 1802 a journalist named James Callender wrote a story about the relationship between Sally and Tom and an enslaved boy who bore his name and looked just like Thomas. It was the Monica Lewinsky scandal of its day. Sally's son Madison also wrote about his mother and father when he grew up. The descendants of Thomas and Sally have rich oral histories and stories which they have been collecting and recording. One historian examined the records and determined that Thomas was at Monticello each time Sally got pregnant. Still there has been bickering and controversy about who "belongs" in the family. Some people claim that it might have been Jefferson 's brother who fathered Sally's children. But the organizers of this recent  reunion decided to be welcoming and all-inclusive towards everyone who thinks they might belong to the family in any way.

On Saturday morning, there was a slide show about the carpentry and architectural work of one of the enslaved men at Monticello named John Hemings (Sally's brother). Here we saw letters and detailed architectural plans written by Thomas with directions for John. We saw a letter written by John when he was having trouble with building a roof that Jefferson designed. We saw chairs, a horse drawn carriage, Venetian blinds, rooftops, doorway arches, cabinets and other beautifully crafted and creative designs built by John. Clearly John Hemings was a skilled craftsman, and could read and do complex mathematical computations to complete the arduous designs that Jefferson assigned him to. In the afternoon some of the descendants spoke about different members of the Hemings line. We heard about what happened to Sally's sons Thomas Woodson, Madison Hemings and Eston Hemings and the impressive contributions that all of the Hemings children and their descendants made. In the evening there was a tour of the building and reception on the grounds of Monticello for the guests. The group gathered on the steps of Monticello for a family photo shoot and sang We are Family.

While Saturday was informative and fascinating, Sunday was the day that brought tears to many people's eyes and opened our hearts. The day began with a sunrise service at a newly discovered slave grave site. None of the graves are marked but at least 40 bodies are believed to be buried there. Madison Hemings descendant Shay Banks-Young asked the audience to close our eyes and experience  with her the torturous journey through the middle passage from West Africa to Virginia , as if we were Elizabeth 's mother. We imagined being captured and stolen from our village, removed from our family and those who spoke our language, chained, thrown into the inside of a filthy ship, tied head to foot with other captives among sick and dying bodies, soiling ourselves, finally being brought to a new land where we were bathed, oiled, branded and sold to a master for whom we had to work. "Sold. Sold. Welcome to America !" Shay exclaimed. She then went on to tell of this woman being raped by a friend of her master and having an enslaved daughter named Elizabeth Hemings. Shay explained that in order to survive the horrors of slavery,  Elizabeth and her mother had to be very strong. They had to go deep into the recesses of their souls to find comfort. This is how they became profoundly spiritual and religious people. A liturgical dancer named Tiffany Tate then became Elizabeth Hemings in her quest for spiritual freedom. She threw off her chains and reached for God's light. The service included singing and a sermon. Flowers were placed inside the slave graveyard and everyone held hands and shared their thoughts.

During this service, Susan Hutchinson (on her own behalf and that of several other descendants of Thomas and Martha Jefferson) issued an apology for their ancestors' participation in the horrific institution of slavery.  Susan Hutchinson works as a counselor in Reevaluation Counseling in Seattle , Washington and with the group called "United to End Racism." The long overdue apology (which the U.S. government has yet to extend) brought tears to many eyes. Here is the statement:

"As your cousins through the Thomas and Martha Jefferson branch of this large family, we are honored to be here with you, to be welcomed so graciously by you, the descendents of Elizabeth Hemings. As we stand here together at the Monticello slave burial grounds, we wish to honor the contributions of the Hemings family to our American legacy, and we wish to express our deep regret for our ancestor Thomas Jefferson's participation in the institution of slavery, in particular for his enslavement of those on the Monticello plantation and Mr. Jefferson's other properties. No apology could heal the wounds of such an injustice, but perhaps these few words, and the spirit in which they are offered, can contribute in some small way to the healing we can find with one another as we come together as family.

We deeply regret the continuing legacy of slavery and the racism  that it spawned. We apologize for the treatment some of you have received from an organization we belong to.

We are honored to be here with you and we thank you for including us so warmly. Our lives have been enriched by our relationships with you, and we look forward to many more years, and generations, of a reuniting of our families."

The group then walked to the white family graveyard where Thomas Jefferson is buried. In contrast to the unmarked graves at the slave grave site, this graveyard had large tomb stones with much information about their occupants. The  visual difference highlighted the inequities and injustice of slavery for those who visited both sites. Flowers were placed there too. A circle was formed and family members took turns sharing thoughts. The weekend ended with a picnic and lots of hugs and kisses among newly found friends and family members.

My immediate family and I were invited to the event by Julia Jefferson Westerinen (a descendant of Eston Hemings) as friends of the family. Why should this story have relevance to me, an ordinary American, unrelated (as far as I know) to either the Hemings or Jeffersons? The event was deeply moving to me because it sheds light on figuring out how we might begin to heal from the ugliness of slavery and racism. If this diverse group of people, black and white can come together as a family, blacks graciously forgiving the whites and the whites embracing the blacks and apologizing for past wrongs, maybe there is hope for the rest of us as well. By sharing and honoring each other's stories, listening respectfully and being open to getting close, the wounds are beginning to heal. This family realizes that it doesn't really matter who is related to whom. Above all, it is about ending racism and uniting as Americans. If these people can come together and heal from one of the most devastating and brutal chapters of human history, perhaps there is hope for other conflicted groups around the globe.