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.”In the N.P.R. interview, Works refers to Hemings descendants as his cousins.
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.”
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.