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Washington woman will be among Jefferson-Hemings descendants at reunion

Sunday, July 06, 2003

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Rebuffed last year by a group of Thomas Jefferson's legitimate descendants, a Washington woman and others tracing their ancestry to the nation's third president and slave Sally Hemings have formed their own family organization and will hold their first reunion next weekend.

Clara Lee-Fisher will be among 150 or so attending the Hemings reunion Friday through next Sunday at Monticello, Jefferson's Virginia plantation, where three generations of Hemingses toiled.

Lee-Fisher said she will unveil a coat of arms she designed for the family, one that emphasizes not the group's link with Jefferson but that with the slave trade that brought Sally Hemings' grandmother to America as a teenager.

She said she hopes the crest, featuring an African violet, a tear and a slave ship, eventually will be put on mugs and T-shirts that would be sold in the Monticello gift shop.

Lee-Fisher announced plans for the reunion shortly after she and her cousins were denied membership last year in the Monticello Association, composed of descendants of Jefferson's legitimate daughters, Martha and Mary. The group refused to accept the Hemingses as family despite DNA evidence showing Jefferson or a close relative fathered one of the slave's children.

As the Hemingses strike out on their own, Lee-Fisher downplays the notion the family wants, or needs, the recognition of white relatives.

"We have DNA, and we have historians, ..." said Hemings, who calls Jefferson and Hemings her great-great-great-grandparents and their son, Madison, her great-great-grandfather.

After results of the 1998 genetic testing became public, the group that runs Monticello, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, formed a committee to study the issue. The foundation later issued a statement concluding Jefferson likely fathered one, if not all, of Hemings' six or seven children.

Lee-Fisher said the Hemingses next weekend will honor foundation officials for their support.

The Hemingses will enjoy the same VIP access to the grounds that Monticello Association members have during their annual reunions.

"In fact, the Hemingses are having more stuff here than the Jeffersons do," foundation spokesman Wayne Mogielnicki said.

The agenda includes an after-business-hours reception on the mountaintop, an open house in the Monticello archaeology department, special tours of the house and gardens and a sunrise service next Sunday at a slave burial ground. Dianne Swann-Wright, the estate's director of African-American and special programs, said Monticello staff members will provide information about the work the Hemingses performed on the plantation.

It's unclear whether the Hemingses will have access to Jefferson's grave. The site is owned by the Monticello Association.

Lee-Fisher said the gathering will celebrate not just the Jefferson-Hemings saga but the Hemings family story -- beginning with how Sally Hemings' grandmother became a slave trader's mistress on the voyage from Africa and reached America pregnant, and how her daughter, Elizabeth, was the first of three generations of Hemingses to work at Monticello.

Elizabeth's 12 children, including Sally, all worked there. Sally's children received special treatment during their years at Monticello, fueling stories about a Jefferson-Hemings relationship before the DNA testing five years ago shed new light on the subject.

"The DNA found us," Lee-Fisher said, claiming the Hemingses' position on the relationship is misunderstood.

She said the Hemingses don't want to "tie into a white family." Rather, she said, they want to embrace their identify and be able to discuss their heritage without ridicule.

"It's crippling not to be able to speak who you are," she said, noting her father, Edward J. Lee, never mentioned his ancestry outside the family home.

Lee-Fisher said the reunion is open to any of Jefferson's legitimate descendants who care to attend. "We're not testing anybody's blood at the door."


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.

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