Thomas Jefferson's Black and White Descendants Debate His Lineage and Legacy

Article excerpt

He couldn't take it any longer. Not one more second.

As Virginia Atty. Robert H. Cooley III listened to the roomful of scholars disparage the widely reported story that the nation's third president fathered children with a slave, his whole body started to tingle. The more they talked, the more the stinging sensation washed over him in hot waves of resentment and indignation.

And that is when he did it. He didn't plan to--it just came tumbling out from deep inside of him. Standing in the hallowed Rotunda Room which Jefferson designed at the university the president founded, Cooley stood and told the room his story--a story that he and hundreds of African-Americans across the country grew up hearing from their elders.

The story of the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings--the relationship Dr. Lee Quinby of Hobart and William Smith colleges calls "one of the most talked-about non-talked-about events in American history"--is not, Cooley informed them, fable, fantasy or fiction. It is fact--fact backed up by almost 200 years of oral history passed down through generation after generation of Jefferson's and Hemings' first-born son, Thomas Woodson.

And just how did he know? How could he be so sure? Because he, Cooley apprised them, is a direct descendant of that son. "The whole place went silent," Cooley recalls of that day last October at a University of Virginia seminar on Jefferson, Race and Slavery. "You could have heard a pin drop on a cotton ball."

Six months later, Cooley found himself standing in another room of Jefferson scholars. This time, however, the room was also filled with Jefferson's White descendants and it wasn't in a state university. It was at Jefferson's Monticello home, where, at the invitation of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the official keepers of the Jefferson legacy, Cooley made history when he represented the Woodson family at the private dinner that kicked off the 250th anniversary celebration of Jefferson's birth. "They rolled out the red carpet for me," Cooley says of his hosts. "I was treated like visiting royalty."

But not like family. While Cooley was invited to represent the Woodson family, the foundation made it clear the invitation was not an admission that he and his Black relatives were related to Jefferson. Some of Jefferson's White descendants were more blunt. "At the post-dinner reception," Cooley recalls, "one man told me he didn't believe the 'story' for one minute and he didn't know how I would be treated if I were to show up at the periodic meetings of Jefferson's White descendants."

Not that the Woodson family would be all that anxious to attend. As they make clear, their interest is not to claim kinship with Jefferson, but to legitimize their family patriarch, Thomas Woodson.

The question that has so outraged many of Jefferson's White descendants--whether Jefferson fathered children by or even had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings--has been debated for almost two centuries now. It caused a major scandal during his presidency when, in 1802, a Richmond newspaper published an article about the alleged relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.

"It is well known," wrote James Callender, a scandal-mongering writer and a Jefferson enemy, "that the man . . . keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally. The name of her eldest son is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking, though sable resemblance to those of the president himself. . . . By . . . Sally, our president has had several children. There is not an individual in the neighborhood of Charlottesville who does not believe the story, and not a few who know it."

John Q.T. King, a 71-year-old retired U.S. Army major general and president emeritus of Huston-Tillotson College in Texas, says he is just one of hundreds of African-Americans who have known the story all their life. …