Jefferson Descendants Nix Hemings Inclusion

Descendants of Thomas Jefferson voted not to admit descendents of Sally Hemings into the Monticello Association. They also voted down changing the criteria for admission and the proposed creation of a second organization specifically for Hemings descendents. The Membership Advisory Committee released an interim report that’s well worth reading for those interested in the details behind these proposals. Peter Savodnik has the story in today’s Progress.

6 Responses to “Jefferson Descendants Nix Hemings Inclusion”

  • Why are all these people so desperate to get into the TJ club, anyway? Do they get free parking downtown and lifetime passes to Monticello? Maybe full scholarships to UVa for all their kids? This tempest keeps getting bigger and the teapot looks smaller all the time.

  • They want the patent rights to the thing that write two letters at once. And an excuse to put their bed in the center of the room.

  • What I find interesting are the arguments that there is no documentation other than the DNA and oral history and that is not sufficient to become members. I’m sure that many of the Jefferson group do not intend for this to be as racist as it sounds, but let’s face it: this is probably all the Hemings descendents have. Unless there is a smoking gun (such as a letter, “I did it! TJ”) there is not going to be any historical or written documentation on the Hemmings/Jefferson liaison one way or another. So to me, perhaps there can be a way to come up with an acceptable standard of proof that could incorporate both sides’ and come to some sort of understanding. It may not be full proof that the Jeffersonians want and it may not be the full membership that the Hemmings group want. I do think that this liaison happened; Annette Gordon-Reed’s book is a well written book which examines that the things that are written and more importantly, the importance of certain things that are not written and events that occurred. (The discussion on one of the daughters of Sally Hemmings cinched it for me.) (I also was thinking this morning that Sally was related to Maria and Martha Jefferson by virtue of being their aunt as well. Oh, but oops, no piece of paper from Mr. Skelton saying, “Sally is my daughter.”)

    But I do find that the Jeffersonians are rather vocal and rather insulting. The letter to the editor on Sunday to the Daily Progress scoffs at the Hemmings (it was a sort of Groucho Marx rationale: why do you want to belong to any club that refuses to have you as a member). It also implied that these people want to climb on the Thomas Jefferson side of their family and ignore Sally Hemmings. Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that these people respect their ancestors and have done research. I would be surprised if any of them could do what the letter to editor suggested: trace their roots back to Africa. (This is an extremely hard thing to do but I guess this inexperienced person had no idea of how hard it is to find a relative who did have land, wills, and other documentation.)


  • It’s ironic–to say the least–that what the MO requires as proof of descent from TJ’s family just happens to be the one thing that descendants of slaves could never have–a paper trail. I don’t think the MO people have intentionally set the thing up so as to exclude descendants of Sally Hemings–they’re just following the default mode, which is the mode that has always favored the white elite. (I imagine there must be descendants of poor whites and immigrants throughout the US who have no official paper trail of their ancestral history, either–it’s not just slaves. Lord knows I couldn’t trace my own mongrel history past my refugee grandfather.) For the MO, it’s a wonderfully convenient way to get what they want (i.e., no Hemings’ in the graveyard) under cover of official historical procedures.

    I haven’t read Gordon-Reed’s book, but I imagine she makes much of the distinction between oral history and traditional documents as historical evidence. The study of history has been shaped by the expectations and experience of its practitioners; those practitioners (at least in the early days of the profession) valued official documents, paper trails, etc. So today that kind of evidence is what counts, whereas things like oral history are discounted. I think there are a lot of historians who study the non-elite who struggle with this problem–how do you “prove” to the profession (and to the general public) that something happened when you don’t have the kind of documents and evidence that have traditionally satisfied historians?

  • Agreed. And, really, from what I’ve read, the organization’s rules for membership are pretty lax about new members from within the “family”. I remember a quote from one of the more open-minded members (who favored membership for the Hemmings decendants) – I think I read this in the Regress a month or two ago but I’m not sure – that he could claim his cat was his son and therefore deserved membership and no one would dispute it.

    History will likely eventually accept the Hemmings family, but it’s looking unlikely that the white Jeffersons will be so willing.

  • I definitely agree with you about the paper trail; I’ve been trying to do some research on my family and fortunately or unfortunately, my father’s side were sharechoppers or renters so no land transfers, no properties, just census reports for me. And this is just beyond the 1870s. So how would the Hemmings prove their case? I read a while back that an African-American woman actually did something rather startling among genealogists: she managed to trace her roots back to a village in Africa. BTW, she used DNA to prove her ancestry.

    Gordon-Reed’s book focuses on such things as to why the male Hemmings received specialized skills, why they were allowed to be freed and the special care that TJ himself took on freeing them. It was especially revealing of the care he took with the one Hemming daughter when giving her her freedom. The book also points out how “white” Sally Hemmings appeared as well as her children. Sally was reputed to be the daughter of Martha’s father. Sally’s mother also appeared to be Caucausian (I could be wrong on this score). I’m not sure if the book is out of print but she writes it in the point of view of a lawyer, looking at the evidence and looking at both sides.

    (PS How do people in Texas handle their requirements for things like “Sons of Texas” and Alamo survivor families?)


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