J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reconciliation Among Some Jefferson Descendants

And speaking of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants, earlier this month Search for Common Ground honored three members of that extended family with its 2010 Common Ground Award for “outstanding accomplishments in conflict resolution, negotiation, community and peace building.” Here’s the announcement, and here’s an interview with those descendants on the National Public Radio show Tell Me More.

The people being honored are Shay Banks-Young, Julia Jefferson Westerinen, and David Works, founders of the Monticello Community. That group welcomes descendants of anyone born at Jefferson’s slave-labor plantation, free or enslaved, related to the President or not. Banks-Young and Westerinen trace their descent to Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and Works to Thomas and Martha Jefferson.

The three met at meetings of the Monticello Association, open only to descendants from Martha and Thomas. At first it didn’t go well. The Search for Common Ground announcement explains:

David Works himself was initially resistant to the idea of including the Hemings, saying he was “really turned off” by what he “perceived to be the Hemings’ really pushy approach” when they first came to an Association meeting. He admits, “Because of the nastiness of the fight, I never got back to the facts of the argument.”

Eventually, however, he decided to research the Hemings’ claims, reading the original 1998 DNA study as well as a contradictory report issued in 2000. He concluded, “When you put it all together, the simplest and most likely answer was that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children.”
In the N.P.R. interview, Works refers to Hemings descendants as his cousins.

Meanwhile, Works’s older brother, John Works, Jr., started the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society to “defend” their ancestor from that notion. In particular, he wanted to keep the Monticello Association from admitting Hemings descendants or letting them be buried in the graveyard the group owns. David disagreed with that vehement approach, and in 2002 ran for president of the Association, telling the Associated Press that he was a “moderate” on the paternity issue.

At the 2002 annual meeting, the Deseret News reported, John Works, Jr., had to apologize for sending “a photograph of a black man with a zipper across his mouth” to another member who had publicly advocated for including the Hemings descendants. Nevertheless, the overall membership voted for David Works’s opponent and, influenced by the Heritage Society arguments, not to admit Hemings descendants. John Works, Jr., was quoted as insisting that people needed “D.N.A. evidence” to make a case for descent from Thomas Jefferson. Curiously, the association’s membership consists of people claiming descent from Martha Jefferson’s daughters with no genetic evidence at all.

Soon afterward, David Works, Banks-Young, and Westerinen started the more inclusive Monticello Community, with its own meetings. But that wasn’t the end of the friction. In the spring of 2003 Works detected that one person in the group’s chat room, “Cassandra Mays-Lewis,” was posting from the same computer as the new head of the Monticello Association, Nat Abeles. Eventually Abeles’s wife Paula admitted that she had created the persona of a Hemings descendant to keep tabs on the other group.

In 2004, John Works, Jr., told Time that his disagreement with his brother David had “fractured an already strained relationship.” Since then a lot has happened, and any rancor might have cooled a bit. But the Monticello Association continues to bar Hemings descendants from membership.

When I first read about the Monticello Community a few years back, I wondered if this new group was a way to offer some sort of second-class membership to those Hemings descendants without actually acknowledging the strong evidence for their ancestry. Instead, the group appears to have become a catalyst and forum for exploring the members’ common heritage and the racial divisions in American society. Which is why its founders are being honored for seeking larger common ground.


RFuller said...

There is no logic when it comes to families, only emotion, raw emotion. The Jefferson descendants probably feel besieged by the outside world telling them what to do, when they see it all as nobody else's business. But they'll come around. As we have seen, some already have.

J. L. Bell said...

Reviewing the articles, I realized that some of the Monticello Association’s initial resistance to accepting the Hemings descendants at their gatherings involved something else we handle with emotion more than logic: where we put our dead.

Once the leading Hemings descendants made clear that they, at least, had no interest in being buried at Monticello, that emotional issue was off the table.

I do think that once a group has organized itself around a famous ancestor, they shouldn’t be surprised at widespread public reaction to news about that ancestor.

John said...

Mr. Bell, you should check your facts before you print such an untruthful article. The Monticello Association members do not need DNA tests since Thomas Jefferson himself acknowledged their paternity explicitly. All the 1998 DNA showed was that "some" Jefferson fathered one of Sally Hemings' children via the Y chromosome. Since there were at least two dozen other Jefferson males who also carried the same Y chromosome, there is nothing to suggest that the father was Thomas Jefferson himself. In 2002, relying largely on the work of the Scholars Commission--who voted 12 to 1 that it was highly unlikely that Thomas Jefferson was the father--the Monticello Association voted 67-6 (93%) that there was insufficient evidence to admit the Hemings into the Monticello Association. Nothing has changed since then. Therefore the only "reconciliation" that exists is solely in the minds of the disgruntled Hemings descendants, and a very small handful of equally disgruntled members of the Monticello Association who would prefer to ignore the scientific evidence that is crystal clear. Sir, you have done your readers a great disservice by distorting the truth here and disparaging one of our country's great Americans.

J. L. Bell said...

Please don’t call my posting “untruthful” when you don’t point out a single factual misstatement in it.

Now let’s look at the factual misstatements and omissions in your comment.

1) “The Monticello Association members do not need DNA tests since Thomas Jefferson himself acknowledged their paternity explicitly.” The Monticello Association basically bars Hemings descendants on the grounds that Madison and Eston Hemings’s mother Sally might have lied to them about who their father was. Applying the same standard to Thomas Jefferson must start with the fact that he had a very strong reason not to acknowledge paternity of the Hemings children, rendering his lack of acknowledgment less than conclusive.

Applying the same standard to Martha Jefferson means we can’t say for certain that any of her children were conceived with Thomas. (She would certainly have had a reason to lie if they weren’t.) Applying the same standard to succeeding generations, furthermore, compounds the uncertainty that any member of the Monticello Association actually descends from Thomas Jefferson.

For all the weight you put on “scientific evidence,” John, no member of the Monticello Association can show any genetic link to Thomas Jefferson. In contrast, patrilineal descendants of Eston Hemings Jefferson can show a D.N.A. link to patrilineal descendants of a Jefferson.

2) “Since there were at least two dozen other Jefferson males who also carried the same Y chromosome, there is nothing to suggest that the father was Thomas Jefferson himself.” This is a blatant lie.

Thomas Jefferson is the only male member of his line documented as being at Monticello every time Sally Hemings conceived. Thomas Jefferson is the only Jefferson publicly named as the father of her children in the 1800s. Thomas Jefferson is the only man Madison Hemings named as his father. There is more evidence to suggest that Thomas Jefferson was the Hemingses’ father than for any other man of the family, or of the time.

That might not be enough evidence to convince very skeptical people that he’s the most likely father. But it’s far more than “nothing,” as you falsely claim.

3) The “Scholars Commission.” This was a hand-picked set of mostly politically conservative scholars (and one spouse), convened by an organization set up with the agenda of denying the conclusions of the Monticello committee and providing cover for the Monticello Association to exclude people descended from Sally Hemings. The commission did that job, but it has convinced few other scholars.

4) “Therefore the only ‘reconciliation’ that exists...” The title of this posting is “Reconciliation Among Some Jefferson Descendants.” That alone acknowledges that some descendants refuse to be reconciled. Your own “disgruntlement” is quite clear, John. (You wouldn’t happen to be John Works, Jr., would you?)

5) “...the scientific evidence that is crystal clear.” The D.N.A. evidence is indeed quite strong that Thomas Jefferson and Eston Hemings Jefferson shared a Y chromosome. The scientific evidence about when Sally Hemings conceived is also very strong. The scientific evidence that any member of the Monticello Association is genetically linked to Thomas Jefferson, however, is nonexistent.

The only detailed account of the Hemings children that matches all the D.N.A. and other biological evidence available today is that of Madison Hemings, who said Thomas Jefferson was his father. In contrast, the stories that Martha Jefferson’s descendants (i.e., ancestors of some of today’s Monticello Association members) told about Sally Hemings’s children in the mid-1800s are contradictory and unsupported by documentary or scientific evidence.

It does a disservice to history to misstate and deny evidence because of racial prejudice, misplaced embarrassment, and/or political preferences.

John said...

jOh Mr. Bell, my, my, my! You are so found of postulating "facts" without any support whatsoever. I'm relieved to know that in your mind (only) all of the members of the Monticello Association are illegitimate, and that all of Sally Hemings children were irrefutably fathered by Thomas Jefferson. But "facts" and "science" don't matter to people like you, because they conveniently get in the way of your warped agenda to try to bulldoze a relationship that frankly did not exist. Perhaps you would care to read a very well-written and researched article I wrote in the very prestigeous magazine Drumbeat published by the Sons of the Revolution that sets the record straight here on the so-called Jefferson-Hemings relationship and the deliberate agenda at play to distort the real science and facts. It is a real pity that you've fallen into the same trap, but I guess we shouldn't have expected any more than that from you.


J. L. Bell said...

Thank you for confirming (in a backhanded way) that you are John Works, Jr.

The same man who founded the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, convened its “Scholars Commission,” and spread its publications to the Monticello Association.

The same who emailed the photo of a black man with a zipper over his mouth to stop people from talking about the controversy over admitting Sally Hemings’s children to that association.

Now your brother has shared a Common Ground Award with some Hemings descendants, and my posting on that news has made you angry enough to attack me, him, and them. That says much more about you than the fact that you believe your own article is “very well-written and researched.” [Folks, it’s three pages long and adds nothing to this historical debate.]

Please acknowledge that I didn’t say Martha Jefferson’s children and descendants were fathered by men other than those believed to be their fathers. I said that their parentage is impossible to prove if we apply the same high evidentiary bar that you’re using to deny that Sally Hemings’s children were most likely fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

Caring about scientific and historical facts means looking at all the evidence available, not spreading a false claim that “nothing” exists. It means applying the same standards to historical figures whether white or black, male or female, rich or poor, folks you want to be related to or folks you desperately don’t want to be related to.

It’s clear to me that you want to reach a certain conclusion on this question, and thus deny scientific and historical facts that point to other conclusions. That’s your right. But to attack people who disagree with you, claiming they don’t care about facts, is reprehensible.

Anonymous said...

The Monticello Association members who do not believe that Jefferson was the father of Hemings' children should look at the scientific and historical evidence and accept that Jefferson was as human as anyone else, and that he was probably the father of her children. Their belief that Jefferson did not father Hemings' children will not change the past to suit their beliefs.