Descendents of Slaves and Slave Owners Gather for a Healing Family Reunion
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
Family Reunion event was hosted by the Thomas Jefferson
Foundation, the non-profit historical group which
organizes tours of the grounds at
(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.
historians dismissed the Hemings' family claim that they
were descendants of
morning, there was a slide show about the carpentry and
architectural work of one of the enslaved men at
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
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
"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.