Those findings are inconclusive, and additional Woodson descendants are now being tested. But the DNA results fueled the argument that Thomas Woodson was not a son of Jefferson, that the Woodson oral history and family documents -- including a published genealogy, wills and affidavits, newspaper articles, Bibles that serve as a family tree, photographs and drawings -- amount to a big misunderstanding.
Historians give varying accounts of Jefferson's relationship with Hemings. But the Woodson story starts with a now-widely accepted view that in 1789, a child was conceived in France, the product of a secret union between Jefferson, then minister to France, and Hemings, who was one-quarter black and the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife, Martha.
In 1790, when Jefferson returned to the United States, he brought Hemings -- still pregnant -- back to Monticello. Hemings, having enjoyed freedom in France -- slavery was illegal -- hadn't wanted to return to Virginia. But Jefferson promised she would live a life of privilege and that he would free her children at age 21, according to Woodson family history and other historical sources.
One version of the story holds that the baby from that pregnancy died. Woodson history, however, says the baby was born in 1790 in Shadwell, Va., near Charlottesville, also Thomas Jefferson's birthplace -- and named Thomas.
Over the years, rumors circulated about Jefferson's liaison with his slave. In 1802, a newspaper reporter, James Callendar, wrote that a young lad of 10 or 12 named Tom was living at Monticello, "and his features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the president himself."
Jefferson's political enemies took advantage of the story. As a result, Thomas was sent to the farm of John Woodson, a relation of Jefferson's, whose name Thomas later took in rejection of the parent who had rejected him, according to Woodson history.
Thomas Woodson married Jemima (Price) Grant and had 11 children, and so it went for seven generations until 1,400 people in the United States today are their descendants, Michele Cooley-Quille among them.
Like most American children, Michele would learn about Thomas Jefferson in grade school, but not about the secret that would eventually become a crusade.
Cooley-Quille was also born in France, in 1965, where her father, Robert Cooley III, was a lawyer for the U.S. Army.
Just as Sally Hemings had enjoyed freedom in France, the Cooleys -- living in Orleans, France -- had escaped the discrimination that still stifled blacks in the United States of the mid-1960s. Their sense of equality was reinforced by Robert Cooley's service in the military, the first American institution to systematically practice equal rights among races.
So in the late 1960s, when the family returned to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville -- where Robert Cooley attended military law (JAG) school -- they were disturbed to find how little had changed, despite the passage of civil rights laws.
Cooley finally realized it was the color of his skin that made white students leave the table when he sat down to study in the library. He repeatedly turned down invitations to dinner or bowling with his military buddies to spare them the embarrassment of witnessing his rejection from establishments that would not welcome blacks.
The Cooleys worked hard to build their children's inner strength, teaching them to be colorblind and not look for racism in peoples' motives. Though they typically lived in white neighborhoods and rose through the ranks of white-dominated society, the Cooleys sheltered their children from situations where they might be denigrated.
In one apartment complex where they lived in Charlottesville, the Cooleys at first kept their children out of the pool, fearing the trauma they'd suffer if their white neighbors suddenly got out.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s in Washington, Minnie Shumate Woodson was digging up family history for a book on the Woodsons, and her research led her to theretofore-unknown relatives across the country.
Brought together by the book, five or six lines of the Woodson family gathered in 1978 in a Pittsburgh hotel for the first reunion. "The families didn't know one another until they came together in 1978, and they all had the same story," said John Q. Taylor King, 77, of Austin Texas, a Woodson descendant. "That's why we have such implicit faith in the Woodson oral history."
Preparing to attend the reunion, Cooley decided it was time to tell his three children, Lisa, 13, Michele, 12, and Robert IV, 9, about their lineage. (He had been told the "family secret" at age 8 in the 1940s by his grandfather.)
"We were so ecstatic," Cooley-Quille said. "It's tremendous to find out you're related to someone who wrote the Declaration of Independence and shaped democracy in America."