Meet the Jefferson Descendants
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David Works, Shay Banks-Young and Julia Jefferson Westerinen are descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Their complicated relationships illustrate the legacy and inequity of America’s slave past: Shay, a black woman and Julia, a white woman, trace their roots to the relationship between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings; while David’s ancestry comes from Jefferson and his wife Martha.
There has been resistance to the inclusion of the Jefferson-Hemings descendants by the Monticello Association, a 700-person group of Jefferson descendants that holds annual reunions at the historical site. They used to be a relatively obscure group—their main role is administering the Monticello graveyard—but the 1998 DNA study that confirmed that Sally Hemings had at least one child by a Jefferson man (not necessarily Thomas) jumpstarted a media frenzy, including a very public interview on Oprah. In the media spotlight, the Monticello Association was quick to invite the Hemings family to the reunions as guests, but ultimately voted against allowing their permanent membership in 2002. As the 2004 TIME article covering this story said, “What began as an extended-family reunion…disintegrated into a bitter family feud between Jefferson’s white family and his black one. “
Dialogue about race in America has been contentious and often painful. Indeed, David Works himself was initially resistant to the idea of including the Hemings, saying he was “really turned off” by what he “perceived to be the Hemings’ really pushy approach” when they first came to an Association meeting. He admits, “Because of the nastiness of the fight, I never got back to the facts of the argument.” Eventually, however, he decided to research the Hemings’ claims, reading the original 1998 DNA study as well as a contradictory report issued in 2000. He concluded, “When you put it all together, the simplest and most likely answer was that Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children.” In 2003, David and other members who supported the membership of the Hemings family began The Monticello Community, an inclusive group that hosts gatherings for “descendants of the various families with connections to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation.”
David, Shay, and Julia have worked together and separately to bridge the divide of mistrust within their own family, and to continue talking about race through the lens of finding common ground. They have begun a wider dialogue about race by starting with one conversation. Because of their ongoing commitment to this work, Search for Common Ground is proud to honor them with a 2010 Common Ground Award.
Shay and Julia appear together publicly, lecturing and holding seminars around the country
about race relations in general and their story in particular. Although Julia never knew she had black ancestry growing up—she is descended from Thomas and Sally’s son Eston, who chose to pass for white—she has embraced her newfound family, as well as the unique role she can play in contributing to a deeper conversation about race in the United States. As she puts it, “I have a new mission in life, which is to expose the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done. We want to heal the racial scars of this nation.”
Shay and David have participated in “Coming to the Table,” a program that seeks to understand, acknowledge, and heal the persistent wounds of slavery through four interconnected stages: history, connecting, healing, and action. In the video below, participants discuss the importance of gaining “a deeper understanding of the past so that we can better comprehend the contemporary challenges of racial division and inequality.”