Jefferson Descendants Reconcile Family History

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In his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the sons of former slaves and slave owners "sitting down at the table of brotherhood." One historic family has literally done that and much more to advance the work of racial harmony.

Members of the family insist they're at least part descendants of one of America's Founding Fathers.

"I'm the sixth great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson through his wife, Martha," said David Works, a Jefferson descendant.

"I'm the fifth great-grandchild of Thomas Jefferson," said descendant Julia Jefferson Westerinen.

"And I'm the sixth great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings," said Shay Banks-Young, another descendant.

Westerinen's father discovered that his great-grandfather, Eston Jefferson, was black, but passed as a white man.

"It was a secret in our family," Westerinen said. "My father and his two brothers decided that the secret would die with them."

Others had a hard time accepting what some historians have alleged for years -- that Jefferson, after the death of his wife Martha, developed a relationship with a slave on his plantation with whom he fathered several children.

It's something the Jefferson family had challenged for years.

"It was my great-great-great-grandmother and her brother that came up with the story about the Carrs -- that they were the fathers of Sally Hemings' children," Works said.

Yet in 1998, DNA testing provided answers that were hard to refute.

"They found my brother was a straight male descendant," Westerinen said. "And they took the samples to England and all nineteen markers tested positive with my brother."

Westerinen's brother's DNA proved that the Hemings and Jeffersons were related. Also, she learned the truth about her black ancestry.

"As I told the press, it made me more interesting than I thought I was," Westerinen said.

Some worried about what the Hemings would do with the new information.

"It was clear to me that the Hemings were going to push their way into our vaunted graveyard and that we had to stop that," Works said.

For Banks-Young, it wasn't about a plot of land at Monticello.

"My grandfather came out of there as a free man, moved to Ohio, and lived his life," she said. Why would I want to go back to where he was enslaved to be buried?"

It's a legacy she can leave with her children. A journey she can trace back not only to Sally Hemings, but to Hemings' grandmother, a young African woman who came to America on a slave ship.

"And when I think about the fact that an African girl survived the Middle Passage and then all the things that they endured through enslavement. The fact that we're here today and alive is a miracle to me," Banks-Young said. "So, I celebrate who they are and I feel like I owe them much. It's an honor to me to represent them."

Last fall, the three were honored for their work bridging the family divide and trying to heal the legacy of slavery. Their breakthrough came when the Hemings family hosted a reunion and invited the Jeffersons to attend.

"Twelve of us came, and we had a very good time," Works described. "I had a blast, actually."

The reunion got them talking, and they formed a group known today as the Monticello Community. It's open to descendants from various families who lived and worked at Jefferson's estate.

"It is a miracle of sorts the way we relate, because we're probably 10th or 12th cousins," Works said.

Banks-Young and Works credit their Christian faith with forming a foundation to start the process of healing.

"David and I, it's our common denominator," Banks-Young stated. "God has put us here for this."

"We would say in Christian terms, in Christ, there is neither bond nor free, male or female," Works said. "That is the key scripture for reconciliation. When you talk about all these generations, it seems like how could you ever come together over something like this? But we've really turned into a family as part of a community."

Not everyone in the family is on board, but Banks-Young, Works, and Westerinen believe they're providing a model for progress. It's tied together by their family histories, choosing to live and work together in the present to brighten the future for their families and anyone else willing to listen.

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