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Not All Are Welcome at Jefferson Family Reunion

May 07, 2000|From Associated Press

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Michele Cooley-Quille knew that when she arrived for the weekend Jefferson family reunion, she might not be welcomed with open arms.

Same for Mary Jefferson. Likewise for Shay Banks Young.

But these distant cousins--Jefferson is white, the other two are black--attended the Jefferson family reunion this weekend in Charlottesville anyway. The three, along with about 17 others, came to seek recognition as descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.

"I came to heal, to make peace with my family," said Cooley-Quille of Baltimore. "But fragments of this organization . . . are dedicated deniers."

Cooley-Quille and the others were barred from a news conference held Saturday by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a faction of the third president's descendants formed to deny recent DNA findings that linked at least one of the Hemings descendants to a Jefferson. The organization is not to be confused with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which operates Monticello.

So while Cooley-Quille and the others fumed in the hallway of the Omni Hotel, John Works Jr., a former Monticello Assn. president and a man they consider their flesh and blood, denied their lineage.

"The Hemings need to provide adequate proof" of their heritage, said Works, who runs a business in Romania. "So far, the proof is lacking."

It was almost too much for Cooley-Quille.

"It makes my blood boil," she said. "They can no longer exclude us. The truth will prevail."

Cooley-Quille, a descendant of Thomas Woodson, Hemings' oldest son, came to the reunion even though The Thomas C. Woodson Family Assn. declined an invitation to attend this year. Two separate DNA tests failed to link Woodson descendants to the Jefferson family.

During his presidency, Jefferson was accused publicly of fathering several of Sally Hemings' children after his wife died. Members of Hemings' family have passed down the paternity claim through the generations.

In November, a DNA study concluded that a "Jefferson male," not necessarily Thomas, was the father of Eston Hemings, the slave's youngest son. In January, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation acknowledged for the first time that Jefferson is the likely father of one, if not all six, of Hemings' children.

During Saturday's news conference, Works said his organization's mission is to seek the truth, not to exclude anyone based on color.

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