`Second' family comes to dinner at Monticello

May 14, 1999|By Michele Cooley-Quille

THE ANNUAL meeting of the Monticello Association is this weekend in Charlottesville, Va. Thanks to a distant cousin, Lucian K. Truscott IV, a best-selling author and an association member, my family was formally invited by the association -- for the first time -- to attend the annual reunion of descendants of the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson. As guests, not as members.

I am an eighth-generation descendant of Jefferson, a fact I have known since I was 12 years old.

The clarity and certainty with which I know my progenitor is easy to understand. My relatives have kept copious records for years, including Bibles dating back a century, daguerreotypes of grandparents and detailed genealogical charts.

Given this background, why the controversy? My family history is complicated by two details: First, I am a product of Jefferson's "second" family. That is, from his 38-year relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife, Martha.

Second, oral history is not considered "legitimate" by historians. But the documentation required by today's historians was illegal in 1790, when Thomas Woodson, my great, great, great, great grandfather, was born. He was Hemings' first child fathered by Jefferson.

My journey to the reunion is in part an attempt to achieve my father's dying wish to be buried at Monticello.

My father, Robert Cooley III, a judge and decorated Vietnam veteran, died suddenly last July at age 58, two weeks after asserting on network television that he wanted to be laid to rest there alongside his ancestors. I contacted the Monticello Association and requested that his wish be honored, particularly given the almost decade-long commitment and national attention he brought to Heming's relationship with Jefferson.

The request was denied in part because association officials said they did not have DNA evidence linking Hemings' descendants to Jefferson.

DNA report

Last fall, DNA evidence proved that Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, Hemings' youngest son. Scientists found no DNA match in the Thomas Woodson line, but they said it was inconclusive.

Interestingly, in the history of the association, no blood or genetic evidence has been required prior to admitting members. At least one member has been admitted without a birth certificate. Some members, I have been told, have been admitted based on oral history.

Further, there has been no required vote of the entire association membership to admit new members. With these precedents, I hope that I (and my father, posthumously) will be granted membership.

It is temporally and emotionally draining to repeatedly assert our link to Jefferson when we frequently encounter overwhelming resistance. This resistance would not exist if we were products of Jefferson's "first" family.

Jefferson's son

Some 200 years ago, it was literally dangerous to be the "slave son" of Jefferson. Woodson was born in Shadwell, Va., (Jefferson's birthplace) and lived at Monticello until he was 12.

In 1802, a Richmond, Va., newspaper stated that Woodson had "features bearing a striking though sable resemblance to the president himself." That placed him in danger. Men tried to kidnap him and use him to disparage the president and his political party. Woodson was sent away from Monticello for his own protection; he changed his name and distanced himself from Jefferson.

After the reunion dinner on Saturday and a tour of Monticello, some 150 members of the Monticello Association will meet Sunday in private. It is then that association members will have an opportunity to rectify history. They can provide us, the "second" family, our birthright: Equity in rights and privileges accorded other Jefferson descendants.

If we are not admitted to the association this year, then we will persevere next year. Or the next.

Meanwhile, it is incumbent on all Americans to insist on a true account of our history, which would assist the members of the Monticello Association in recognizing that it is right and just to admit members of Jefferson's "second" family into their association.

Michele Cooley-Quille, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of mental hygiene in the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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