Hemings and Jefferson DNA evidence: Scientific findings have implications for interpretation of history and of the present.

November 08, 1998

THE SHARED history of blacks and whites is a given in many African-American families, as it has long been among the descendants of Sally Hemings.

DNA evidence has now proved what some historians had long denied -- that Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's slave, a woman without rights under law, was the mother of at least one of his children. (Hemings, 28 years Jefferson's junior, was also the half-sister of his deceased wife.)

Its soap opera-like qualities aside, the tale contains lessons for this nation -- about race relations, about lying and about the standards to which we hold our leaders.

That Founding Father Jefferson hid the affair seems far from shocking. Then, as now, liaisons outside of marriage were repugnant to many Americans -- and not in the best interests of a politician.

However, his reservations about ending slavery because it would lead to racial mixing -- expressed while carrying on the affair -- are quite another matter. Such hypocrisy is not in keeping with the traditional view of Jefferson, even one that acknowledges the contradiction of the man as slave owner and democrat.

The role that denial -- of the humanity of blacks, of individual frailty, of promises unmet -- has played in U.S. history is all brought home in this one episode. Its complexities will continue to intrigue historians.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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