Grave Matters at Monticello

American Family Reunions

We cruise the aisles at Wal-Mart and eat chicken-fried steak at Shoney's. This routine alone is enough to keep me coming back, but really why I go is to hear the same family stories told year after year. A favorite involves my great-great-grandfather, Jack Johns, an African American, and my great-great-grandmother, Anna, his Jewish wife; they fell in love while working as domestics at a plantation near Bishopsville, South Carolina, shortly after the Civil War. Who said interracial coupling first blossomed in the Age of Aquarius?

My holidays are synonymous with a trip to Hartsville, South Carolina (about an hour upstate from Columbia, the capital), for my annual family reunion, which brings together relatives from around the country. On the topics of race, sex, and hair, there's always plenty to report. This year, I noticed what an openly multiculti family we've become. Our mixed ancestry, like that of most blacks, is not news. The news is the family's sense of comfort with it. In the future, I see our gathering evolving from a black family reunion into what one might call a historically black reunion of Americans.

In June, another cousin of my generation will marry, as folks used to say, "outside the race." And a highlight of this year's reunion was the wedding video of yet another interracial couple. The family sat around eating Cheez Doodles and enjoying the obvious devotion between two middle-class kids from Palo Alto. "Love, we are standing here in the fullness of your presence," said the minister, and no one in front of the VCR batted an eye. A far cry, I imagined, from when my white mother and black father tied the knot in 1958, their union still illegal in most Southern states.

It's no sweet irony that despite the current state of my family, the state of South Carolina exists in an entirely different stratosphere. In November, South Carolinians voted on whether to abolish a 103-year-old ban on interracial marriage. This Jim Crowmanaged to remain part of the state constitution despite Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down miscegenation laws in 1967. (Alabama is the only other state that still has such a law; there is currently a campaign to remove it.)

South Carolina voters ended up siding against the ban, but only by a two-thirds margin. Several state representatives wanted to keep it. Said Representative Lanny Littlejohn, Republican from Spartanburg, just before the vote, "I think God has a perfect plan, and man has screwed it up." Here's to the new millennium. Whose American future will prevail—Mr. Littlejohn's or my family's?

One family reunion in particular has made headlines of late, though in this case the parties were brought together by means of a test tube. Last month, DNA tests confirmed that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. The Jefferson-Hemings link has been a hotbed of contention for 200 years. And the DNA "bombshell," as some saw it, reignited the debate about our third president's character and legacy. Was he the architect of American equality struggling with the question of slavery, or a slave owner who warned against race mixing while feasting on taboo sex across the color line? Or just another human specimen of contradictions?

Before DNA sent mainstream scholars scrambling to revise their canons, they happily bypassed stacks of circumstantial evidence and oral history from black families attesting to the relationship. The most damning clue all along, to my mind, is that Hemings herself was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, née Martha Wayles, who died young. Martha's father had six children by Sally's mother. (Historians have long accepted oral history accounts of the black Wayles children, but not of the black Jeffersons.) Jefferson romantics like to claim the president was immune to the ethos of slave owner as sultan, but he was surely surrounded by it, and not just philosophically.

African Americans didn't need DNA to give credence to the Hemings-Jefferson story; we just look at our rainbow of skin tones and our family trees full of European and Indian ancestors. Without question, the concubinage of black females was central to American slavery. And given that nine out of our first 12 presidents owned slaves, one can only imagine how many other colored descendants of note are among our ranks.

The only scoop from Monticello was no scoop at all. The real issue, as talk-radio host Earl Ofari Hutchinson told Don Terry at the The New York Times, is "why there was such denial for so long among historians and so many whites."

Indeed, the presumed crime of race mixing looms large here. (More attention was paid to Hemings's race than to the fact that she was three decades Jefferson's junior, Lolita's age when accounts say their relationship began.) Jefferson's sex with Hemings suddenly became a "crime more heinous than the crime of his legal ownership of her," to quote Annette Gordon-Reed, whose Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy examines the racial protectionism that litters Jefferson scholarship. And while we're on the subject, one of the least-explored crimes of American slavery was that whites didn't just own and rape their African property, but committed the offspring of these unions, their own flesh and blood, to bondage as well.

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.

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 (www.monticello.org).

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.)

Even if Hemings kin weren't Jefferson's blood relatives, the Monticello Association courts shame by keeping them out of the graveyard. Hemings and the other Africans held as slaves built Monticello. They made the bricks, planed the lumber, suckled and fed the children. And the white descendants of Jefferson continue to enjoy the wealth and privilege this free labor amassed. Ancestral labor, as much as common blood, demands that kin of former slaves share Monticello. The Monticello Association must know they owe the black descendants a lot more than a place in the family plot.

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