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Washington Neighborhoods
Hemings descendants plan separate Jefferson reunion

Sunday, May 19, 2002

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If Thomas Jefferson's legitimate descendants won't recognize them, Washington resident Clara Lee-Fisher said, she and other descendants of slave Sally Hemings will hold a reunion of their own at Jefferson's Virginia estate next year.

In recent years, Hemings' descendants have attended the annual gathering of the Monticello Association, composed of descendants of Jefferson's daughters, Martha and Maria.

But Lee-Fisher said the Hemingses aren't likely to attend again because this year's gathering, held May 4 and 5, was so contentious. In a long-delayed decision, descendants of Martha and Maria voted not to offer the Hemingses membership in the family society, saying they're still not convinced the nation's third president had children with a slave.

Lee-Fisher calls Jefferson and Hemings her great-great-great grandparents and traces her ancestry to Madison Hemings, whom some believe was the pair's second-youngest child. Freckled like Jefferson, Lee-Fisher said she drew stares from his legitimate descendants by attending one Monticello Association event two weeks ago.

While she's disappointed association members won't recognize the Hemingses, despite 1998 DNA evidence that Jefferson or a close relative fathered at least one of the slave's children, Lee-Fisher said she's pleased many others do acknowledge the relationship.

That, she said, is considerable progress since her childhood.

She said her father, Edward Lee, told about her connection with Jefferson but advised her not to discuss it for fear of ridicule. On the couple of occasions she did broach the subject, she said, peers and teachers laughed at her.

"I inherited the legacy of silence. ... My dad told me it was enough to look in the mirror and know why I looked the way I did," she said.

Today, emboldened by the DNA evidence and budding relationships with her cousins, Lee-Fisher is becoming an outspoken member of the Hemings clan.

She said the Hemingses will approach the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, operator of Monticello, about holding their own family reunion there next year. She predicted the event would be livelier than the annual Monticello Association gathering, which includes a reception, memorial service at Jefferson's grave and what Lee-Fisher described as stodgy discussions about the members' genealogy.

Nathaniel Abeles, new president of the Monticello Association, said he supports the Hemingses' plan to have their own reunion.

Foundation spokesman Wayne Mogielnicki said the Hemingses' request would be considered. Two years ago, the foundation issued a statement saying its research indicated Jefferson and Hemings had a relationship.

Meanwhile, Lee-Fisher will continue relishing her connection with history. During the raucous Monticello Association meeting two weeks ago, Lee-Fisher said, she was overcome with emotion and stood to tell the group she had no doubt her father spoke the truth about their ancestry.

"I looked up, and nobody laughed. And that was something," she said.

Related stories: Think Tank panelists discuss the Monticello Association's decision to deny membership to Hemings descendants and A View from the Experts: Professor sees racism in exclusivity of white kin

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