A Legacy of Reason

Michele Cooley-Quille of Johns Hopkins knows who she is. Calmly, diplomatically, the great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson is showing the world what she and her family are made of.

May 29, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

It was judgment day at the University of Virginia. Michele Cooley, preparing to defend her dissertation before a panel of professors, glanced at the bust of Thomas Jefferson in the school's historic Rotunda. From his image, she drew strength -- for reasons someone looking at her might never have imagined.

As a successful African-American earning her third degree at U.Va., Cooley had made a natural choice for her Ph.D. thesis: She had probed the factors responsible for black students' success. And her conclusions had everything to do with the confidence she found standing near the visage of the country's third president and the university's founding father.

Black students who succeed, she told the panel, are secure in their self-concept and ethnic identity.

They know who they are.

As she explained her thesis and answered questions, she stole a glance out the window of the Rotunda to the university's famous "lawn" and the U-shaped brick village. All around she saw the work of her great-great-great-great-great-great-grand- father.

"I felt a sense of support and motivation having him there," she says now of that day eight years ago.

Since she was 12 years old, Michele Cooley had carried around a side of the Jefferson story that historians had largely ignored: a 38-year relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, that produced seven children.

In 1991, when Cooley was working on her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at U.Va., the knowledge that she was a descendant of Hemings and Jefferson was simply that: something to carry around. If people believed you, fine. If not, so what?

You know who you are.

That was before Daddy started making waves, and the historical organizations started asking him to functions, and the national media got interested, and the Clintons invited him to the White House and Daddy said on national TV that he wanted to be buried at Monticello, in a graveyard with Jefferson himself.

That was before Daddy suddenly died last July, and the Monticello Association refused his wish to be buried there, and her mother and siblings voted to give her the responsibility of carrying on Daddy's quest, and the DNA findings came out indicating Jefferson probably fathered at least one child with Hemings.

And so, Cooley-Quille -- who by now had married Allen Quille Jr. and become an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health -- arrived at Monticello earlier this month to instant media fame.

The Hemings descendants had been invited to the annual family reunion for the first time in its 86-year history -- albeit under threat of public embarrassment. Jefferson descendant Lucian Truscott IV, who invited them, was running around calling his cousins racists for refusing to acknowledge the black blood in their family. At times, rhetorical snarling turned the heady event into farce.

Anyone could have forgiven Michele Cooley-Quille for being angry. She was, instead, the picture of serenity, chatting with newfound cousins and the media -- a striking figure with long black hair and huge dark eyes, 5 1/2months pregnant and draped in an elegant black cocktail dress and matching long-waisted jacket.

So the Monticello Association won't acknowledge Jefferson's second family?

They just don't have enough information, the 33-year-old Cooley-Quille told the media. Only when they are better informed can we judge their motives.

The country, which has lived for more than 200 years with the hypocrisy of race and sex, has heard a lot from the hotheads and, for all the trouble they cause, the hotheads have changed history. This is a story about a coolhead, and how she got that way despite the secrets and the shame that, as Cooley-Quille puts it, have denied her family their rightful legacy.

A shared legacy

In her spacious Baltimore County home the day after her return from Charlottesville, Cooley-Quille sat on a white couch in a family room off the kitchen, legs crossed pretzel-style, her Yorkie snoozing next to her, as she reflected on the weekend's events.

The house, which the Quilles built a year and half ago, has Palladian windows and columns, just like the ones Jefferson built at the University of Virginia and Monticello. Only in those days, it was slaves who did the work.

"Perhaps as a result of this exposure, I gained an affinity for them," she said. "I can't say it was a conscious decision, but perhaps an unconscious one. Or," she added with a laugh, "a genetic one."

Of all the Hemings descendants, Cooley-Quille and her relatives -- the line that descends from Hemings' son, Thomas Woodson -- have, perhaps, the most reason to be agitated.

Despite a strong oral history of their family's descent from Jefferson and documents to support it, last year's highly publicized DNA findings found no match with Woodson descendants.

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