THE THOMAS JEFFERSON/SALLY HEMINGS CONTROVERSY: Did Jefferson Also Father Children by Sally Hemings' Sister?

By Randolph, Laura B. | Ebony, February 1999 | Go to article overview

THE THOMAS JEFFERSON/SALLY HEMINGS CONTROVERSY: Did Jefferson Also Father Children by Sally Hemings' Sister?


Randolph, Laura B., Ebony


Woodson Family Presses Case As New Question Emerges:

They knew it all along. For almost 200 years, the story had been passed down from generation to generation. So often had the descendants of Thomas Woodson heard the story--that Thomas Jefferson had a secret relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and fathered several children by her--that "we knew it like religion," says Woodson Family Association President Robert Golden, the great-great-great grandson of Sally Hemings' first-born child, Thomas Woodson.

And so, throughout decades of controversy and cover-up, when writers and scholars and historians insisted that Jefferson was "morally incapable" of having an interracial sexual relationship, long before new scientific evidence provided virtual proof-positive that America's third president fathered at least one child by Hemings, throughout it all, the descendants of Thomas Woodson kept the faith in the truth of the story their ancestors had told them for generations.

"We have always had implicit faith and extreme confidence in the oral history of our family," says John Q.T. King, a 77-year-old retired U.S. Army major general and president emeritus of Huston-Tillotson College, who says he can still remember his great-aunt Minerva opening the family Bible to the pages of the family tree and explaining that Thomas Woodson was the first-born son of Jefferson and Hemings.

That implicit faith and extreme confidence is what made Byron Woodson roll up his sleeve and give a blood sample when Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired Tufts University School of Medicine and University of Virginia professor of pathology, asked him, along with White male Jefferson descendants and four other male descendants of Sally Hemings, to participate in a study he was spearheading that would use new DNA techniques on the Y chromosome that would reveal whether two men share a common male ancestor.

The test results, Dr. Foster explained, would come as close as possible, without exhuming Jefferson's body, to solving the 200-year-old mystery of Monticello: Did the author of the Declaration of Independence have a relationship with Hemings, the beautiful half sister of his late wife, Martha? (Hemings was one of six slave children fathered by Jefferson's wife's father and became Jefferson's "property" when he inherited his father-in-law's estate in 1774.) And if Jefferson did have a relationship with Hemings, as has been speculated for almost two centuries, did their union produce any children?

"I agreed to give blood because this was a chance to prove what our family has always known: That Jefferson not only had a relationship with but fathered children by Sally Hemings," says Byron Woodson, a community development specialist who is writing a book on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship to continue the work of his late mother, Minnie Shumate Woodson, the first Woodson family member to research and document that history.

What Minnie Woodson found--that five lines of Thomas Woodson descendants who had been dispersed throughout the world for four generations and had no contact with one another maintained consistent oral accounts of their relationship to Jefferson--did not surprise John Q.T. King. In fact, he says, the oral accounts weren't just consistent, "they were almost identical."

Which is one reason Woodson family members are so puzzled by the test results. While the test offers almost certain evidence that Jefferson is the father of Hemings' youngest son, Eston, it did not establish a definite Y chromosome match on Thomas and thus does not support the Woodson family's strong oral tradition that he was also Jefferson's son.

Despite the findings, the Woodson family remains convinced that the most famous of the founding fathers is, in fact, Thomas Woodson's biological father. "Our oral history is so strong that, unless there was testing done directly on Mr. Jefferson and our family members, I don't know that I would ever be too satisfied with any result," says Mr.

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