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A View from the Experts: Professor sees racism in exclusivity of white kin

Sunday, May 19, 2002

By Lynda Guydon Taylor, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It comes as no surprise to Annette Gordon-Reed that the Monticello Association would slam the door on any relationship with Sally Hemings' descendants.

There's also no doubt racism plays a part in the family's rejection. In their minds, there's a specific image of Thomas Jefferson, said Gordon-Reed, a law professor at New York Law School. They've been told for so many years the affair wasn't real. The association also carries a level of exclusivity which makes Jefferson descendants the legitimate heirs and the Hemingses the interlopers.

Gordon-Reed can speak with an authority that few can claim, having written a ground-breaking book in 1997 on the subject. In "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, An American Controversy," Gordon-Reed studied the affair in a strictly legal manner.

Approaching the relationship on a variety of fronts, she picks apart the arguments of historians and other Jefferson "defenders" point by point. She also showed how historians selectively included or excluded information or documentation to prove their case rather than looking at the evidence as a whole.

In one case, historians all but ignored a diary notation by John Hartwell Cocke, Jefferson's friend. In the diary Cocke noted how Jefferson kept a slave mistress.

In the final analysis, Gordon-Reed believes, it does not matter what the Monticello Association thinks. The association does not determine history, she said. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello, accepts that Jefferson fathered at least one and possibly all of Sally Hemings' children.

Her book appeared a year before DNA evidence provided a link that she finds compelling. When combined with reasoning and historical evidence, she finds the likelihood that Jefferson was the father undeniable. While Jefferson's heirs rely on a series of marriage certificates to prove their heritage, she concludes, the Hemingses have a blood relationship established through DNA.

Although the DNA evidence allowed that Jefferson's brother, Randolph, may have fathered the children, she said, 1998 was the first time his name surfaced. But there's no historical evidence linking Randolph and Sally Hemings, other than he was alive at the time.

Until Randolph's name was floated, attention had focused on Samuel and Peter Carr, Jefferson's nephews; but in her book, Gordon-Reed debunked them as possible fathers. There are lots of Jeffersons, but no historical documents linking these other people to the Hemings family, she said.

Gordon-Reed first became interested in Jefferson after reading a biography of the president when she was a child and spent a lifetime following reports about the affair.

She was amazed, however, at how much attention the affair has drawn. People see it as symbolic, when she would prefer it be viewed as a question of history.

What's even more amazing is that the public seems to care more about Jefferson sleeping with a black woman than that he bought and sold human beings.

Her most recent book is "Vernon Can Read! A Memoir," a profile of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan. She said she also plans to write a biography of the Hemings slaves at Monticello. She will take their story through the 19th century and emancipation.

Releated story: Hemings descendants plans separate Jefferson reunion

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