Grave Matters at Monticello

American Family Reunions

Many commentators label the Jefferson-Hemings chronicle a presidential sex scandal with convenient parallels to the Clinton era. The heart of the matter is not sex at all, but family and American identity. This country is a "family not just in democratic theory, but in blood," as writer and Jefferson descendant Lucian K. Truscott IV quoted Gordon-Reed in the New York Times, and we've been so since our colonial beginnings. According to Frank Shuffleton, editor of A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, Americans have been a creole people, culturally and genetically, since the mid-1800s. Yet the reality of our shared blood is constantly denied, particularly by whites. So are the lines between races carefully drawn—manufactured is a better word (witness the "one-drop rule" in determining race)—because they limit the pool of those entitled to the privileges of whiteness.

Truscott's fiery op-eds about the upcoming showdown at Monticello caught my eye. An army brat who grew up in the integrated armed services, Truscott says he's been writing for 32 years, but never had the desire to weigh in about his lineage until he heard his relatives spout off like "rednecks" when faced with the DNA findings.

The Monticello Association, the official society of white descendants of Jefferson, will vote this spring whether to accept black descendants. Membership gets you into the annual reunion at Monticello, and allows you to rest in peace in the president's graveyard. Truscott has invited all the Hemings kin to attend this May, and challenged the whites to "look our slave descendants in the face when you vote to exclude them from our family." Some members are threatening to quit if blacks are voted in; others will quit, and sue, if they aren't.

Corbis / Bettmann

Last month Truscott took part in a made-for-Oprah reunion with his Hemings cousins, including the descendants of Thomas Woodson, reportedly the first son of Hemings and Jefferson, conceived during their time in Paris. No DNA match for the descendants of Woodson has yet been found. Truscott thinks DNA is "horseshit." No one's asking the white descendants for their DNA. Obviously blacks are being held to a higher standard of proof for family membership than whites.

White scientists published the DNA findings, and a white historian, Joseph J. Ellis, introduced them, trumping the decades-long battle for acknowledgment of the Hemings-Jefferson family line waged by African Americans. Truscott put me in touch with Michele Cooley-Quille, whom he calls one of his "Hemings cousins," though she's a sixth-generation Woodson. Cooley-Quille, 33, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins' School of Hygiene and Public Health, is a daughter of the late Robert H. Cooley III, considered by many to be the catalyst behind recognition for the black descendants.

Cooley, a retired federal magistrate and lieutenant colonel in the army, had been waging a campaign since the early '90s, appearing on TV to declare his ancestry and talk about the Woodson Family Association, which claims 1400 known descendants. The Woodsons, a distinguished African American family of college presidents and federal prosecutors, have criticized the DNA study, and stand by their 200-year-old oral history.

In the early '90s, Cooley was asked by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation (which runs Monticello and is guardian of the historical legacy) to take part in the 250th anniversary celebration of the president's birth. He requested permission to stage the semiannual Woodson Family Reunion at Monticello for the first time, which he did in 1992. Judge Cooley was the impetus for the foundation to begin oral history documentation of the descendants of Monticello's slaves, abstracts of which can be found on their Web site (

Cooley died suddenly in July, just months before the DNA results were published. Two weeks before his death, he'd appeared on an ABC news show and said one thing he wanted from his crusade was to be buried at Monticello. Cooley-Quille contacted the Monticello Association immediately after her father passed and requested permission.

But the Monticello Association, the more conservative body, turned down Cooley-Quille's request to bury her father. Robert Gillespie, president of the association, says the decision was based on lack of space in the yard. Gillespie acknowledges that the association has never asked to review the Woodson family records.

A magazine editor I know finds the whole question of who gets to be buried at Monticello a vapid symbol, nothing more than blacks coveting all things white. To Cooley-Quille, the graveyard is no symbol, but part of the "equity in rights and privileges" that she feels are due black families. (Jefferson descendants attend the University of Virginia, which the president founded, for free. Cooley-Quille and her two siblings all went to UVA, but the judge paid their way.)

Truscott calls the graveyard tussle serious business: "This is about blood, race, and land, the same things Gone with the Wind is about... the biggest unexamined subjects we have in this country. And the most explosive. The slaves worked the land, and what did they get for it? Nothing."

I can't think of a more potent metaphor of American race relations at the millennium than the battle over graveyard space at Monticello. There seems to be only one mature choice for the Monticello Association. If it welcomes African American descendants of Jefferson, the association will embrace the future. If it says no, it replays our segregated past. (Truscott says Gillespie once called for the creation of a separate graveyard for Hemings descendants—a Jim Crow solution if ever there was one.)

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