Thomas Jefferson Descendants Work To Heal Family's Past

The international peace-making organization Search for Common Ground is honoring three descendants of Thomas Jefferson for "their work to bridge the divide within their family and heal the legacy of slavery." Host Michel Martin speaks with David Works, a descendant of Jefferson and his wife Martha; and two others — Julie Jefferson Westerinen and Shay Banks-Young — who trace their roots back to a relationship between Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And next to an award linked to a conflict that goes all the way back to the founding of this nation. The international peacemaking organization called Search for Common Ground is today honoring three descendants of Thomas Jefferson for, quote, "their work to bridge the divide within their family and heal the legacy of slavery." One of the three, David Works, is descended from Jefferson and his wife Martha. The other two, Julie Jefferson Westerinen and Shay Banks-Young, trace their roots to the relationship between Jefferson and one of his enslaved Americans, Sally Hemings.

For years, historians dismissed evidence that the author of the Declaration of Independence had fathered children with a woman under his authority. But DNA tests in 1998 linked Jefferson to a descendant of Hemings. The Monticello Association, a group of 700 Jefferson descendants, rejected the test results and initially refused members of the Hemings line burial rights at Jefferson's Virginia home.

That led to a famous feud between the two family lines. But since our guests have now been honored with a peacemaking award, you can imagine that the story has turned out rather differently than it might have been envisioned some time ago. And here with us to talk about this now are three members of the combined group, David Works. And I'm going to describe ethnicity, because I think it is relevant to the conversation we're talking about. David Works is a white descendant of Thomas and Martha Jefferson. Julie Jefferson Westerinen, do you describe yourself as white, would you say?

Ms. JULIE JEFFERSON WESTERINEN: Well, I look pretty white.

MARTIN: Okay. Is a white descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And Shay Banks-Young is a black African-American descendent...

Ms. SHAY BANKS-YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...of Jefferson and Hemings. And thank you all so much for coming, and congratulations on the award.

Ms. WESTERINEN: Thank you.

Ms. BANKS-YOUNG: Thank you.

Mr. DAVID WORKS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So, you're getting this award to honor your efforts to find common ground and kind of bridge this divide that existed. So David, what was the key for you? As I understand it, you were initially against allowing Hemings' descendants to be buried at Monticello and didn't accept the claim to heritage. But what changed things for you?

Mr. WORKS: Well, it all started off because I had behaved rather poorly the first year. It was 1999 at the Monticello Association meeting. And so the second year, I came back, said, we can at least be friends and nice to each other. And that's where it started. And then through the course of time, I actually went back and looked at the facts. And I agreed pretty much with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation conclusion that the simplest and most reasonable explanation was that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings.

MARTIN: Why did you behave badly to begin with?

Mr. WORKS: Well, there was just a lot of rancor in the beginning. We - the Monticello Association's a very sleepy organization. And we show up in 1999 and the press is all along the front of the house. So this - very overwhelming. And it just appeared that the Hemings wanted to break down the gates and get buried in our precious graveyard. So I was offended by that and just said, well, we got to, you know, get this train off the rails...

MARTIN: But were you offended because they're black, or were you offended because you just didn't like the concept that Thomas Jefferson may have had a relationship with a woman under his authority who was a slave?

Mr. WORKS: How about all of the above?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Got it. I understand.

Mr. WORKS: To be perfectly honest. I think the black thing was probably, for me, was probably lower on the scale of those things, but it was there.

MARTIN: So, Julia, how did you figure out the tie? I'm curious about that.

Ms. WESTERINEN: Well, in 1975, Fawn Brodie wrote a book, "Thomas Jefferson and Intimate History," which exposed our relationship. It was a family secret. We lived in Chicago - in Evanston, actually, and they're very prejudiced. So my father and his two brothers decided that the secret would die with them. So when Fawn Brodie wrote the book, we found out.

MARTIN: How did you feel about it when you found out?

Ms. WESTERINEN: Wow. Very interested. But, you know, it was not as important to me as what I do.

MARTIN: You didn't have strong feelings about it one way or the other.

Ms. WESTERINEN: I didn't have anything. Nothing happened.

MARTIN: So, how did you get involved in this whole conversation? Did the idea of being buried at Monticello...

Ms. WESTERINEN: No.

MARTIN: ...somehow become important?

Ms. WESTERINEN: Didn't know there was a burial at Monticello, didn't know anything about it. But in 1998, Dr. Foster, Eugene Foster, was prompted by somebody who wanted to prove that once and for all that Thomas Jefferson never had any black children with his slave. Can you do it? She said socially they were having dinner. Can you do it with the new DNA discoveries? And he said, oh, I'll try, but I have to find a male line descendant. So he found my brother through me.

He was tested and 19 markers matched exactly the Jefferson chromosome. And that hit the press and everybody came to my house, TV stations and everything. We ended up on the Oprah show and so forth, and I met my cousin Shay.

MARTIN: Hello, cousin Shay. So, Shay, how did you find out that you were a descendant?

Ms. BANKS-YOUNG: Okay, I'd like to back up on one thing that you mentioned before about this burial thing. Okay, I need to let you know that there was nobody on the Hemings side initially who really wanted to buried at Monticello, so that's one thing a lot of people have in the other way. And David, we both had misinformation about each other when we met.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. BANKS-YOUNG: I've known about my family all my life. My mother's great-grandmother was the granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. She knew who she was. So we knew. It just wasn't any - I mean, who are you going to tell back in those days?

MARTIN: Well, this is not uncommon, I mean, for example, the daughter of Strom Thurmond, for example, it was known on her side of the family, many people in the community knew; it just wasn't discussed in other parts of town, as it was - so why did this become important to you? What did you want? If the burial piece wasn't important, what was?

Ms. BANKS-YOUNG: Well, it, first of all, the Monticello Association was not even an issue because it's never bothered me or mattered to me if someone else believes or disbelieves who I am. I've been always involved in doing things and getting documents and getting stuff just for my family to give them that. In the meantime, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation did a project called "Getting Word." And that brought all of the enslaved people back together - those descendants, and that's how we kind of got involved.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And I'm with David Works, Julia Jefferson Westerinen and Shay Banks-Young. They're all descendants of Thomas Jefferson and they're being honored tonight for bringing together the branches of that family tree.

Julia and David, I want to ask you this both, what do you think is the key to bridging a gap where it does exist? Now, David, in your case, facts mattered. I mean, it was the fact that - the truth was the truth and you just had to reconcile yourself to it. What else?

Mr. WORKS: It was the facts, but more important was just getting along. My first step was just being friendly with my Hemings cousins, instead of being acrimonious with each other. And so it started just with basic human kindness. And if you don't have the desire to get along, there's no - you can't even find common ground. It was really the relationship was more important to me than the facts. But the facts helped build that relationship because when that - when the facts came together with the relationship we already had, well, then we were able to really sit down and talk about issues that are sometimes really difficult to talk about.

MARTIN: Julia, I think your perspective on this is very interesting. Because I think you are where a lot of, if I might just say, white people are.

Ms. WESTERINEN: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: It just doesn't - it's not a big deal to you. David had strong feelings about it. And Shay, you had strong feelings for your feelings. But for you, you're kind of, I think, like a lot of people for whom the race piece of it is just not a big part of your life. So what does it take to kind of...

Ms. WESTERINEN: Well, I had no feelings. And my job is to rattle a few swords, which I think I did. I challenged the Monticello Association on microphone many times on misstatements and injustices. And of course in our conversation, Shay unpeels my lack of knowledge. And my feeling is that because civil rights passed and we have laws now, everybody thinks that the races are fine. But I realized for myself, from my own history of not knowing anything, to Shay's education of me, to the audiences, to running into stores where people would follow black people around but not me, I was just shocked at all the little things that are just so insulting.

MARTIN: But why is it - because the question, the reason I'm interested, is you could opt out. So why don't you?

Ms. WESTERINEN: It wasn't - I didn't know about it. But when I knew about it, I thought, damn, that's not right. I got furious about it.

MARTIN: What do you think that people who were not - who do not have this kind of family story, at least that they don't know that they have this kind of family story, can learn from your example? If I could hear from each of you on this. Julia?

Ms. WESTERINEN: Well, they can find out how prejudiced they really are. I don't think most people think they are. It's not politically correct to be prejudiced these days. But maybe you are. Maybe you ought to look to yourself, look in the mirror at yourself. What have you done lately? How many black friends do you have? Okay, I have black friends, but I never had them to my house. Well, that's revealing, isn't it? I never had an overnight guest before Shannon, my cousin, and Shay. And that kind of thing. I just want to alert people to that, to look at themselves. And I think it's an individual matter, person by person, really. Getting to know each other. You can't help but find positive things in everybody you know if you look for them. If you look for the negative, you're going to find it.

Ms. BANKS-YOUNG: And I want to say one thing too.

MARTIN: Okay, Shay.

Ms. BANKS-YOUNG: One thing that I dealt with over the years, because I've done programs all through the years, I know that there are a lot of white Americans who don't know that they go back to black descent like my cousin does. And for her to accept that and say, okay, and then try to learn things that she didn't know was an awakening for her. But there are many people just like Julia who still have those things covered up.

You know, we have people still today who first generation are passing for white because they look white and they're still embarrassed about being black. I don't understand that anymore. And for us to now talk about it, we become an example. Julia and I, when they see us talk, I mean we get in arguments on the stage sometimes because she'll ask me stuff and say stuff and we're comical, because things happen.

Ms. WESTERINEN: Time out, she says to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) handle it.

Ms. WESTERINEN: We have a discussion in public.

MARTIN: Okay. David, final thought for you? What should other people learn from this, you think, who don't have such a - or at least aren't aware that they have such a dramatic, you know, family story?

Mr. WORKS: Well, that you can come together and find common ground and commonalities. So we've started a new organization called the Monticello Community, which isn't just family, it's for all the descendants of workmen, artisans and slave, free, family, whatever, at Monticello.

Ms. WESTERINEN: Or anybody who's interested.

Mr. WORKS: Or anybody who's interested. So that we can find - have the opportunity to come together and find more common ground and commonality among us.

MARTIN: I'll bring a peach cobbler if you invite me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BANKS-YOUNG: We would love that. We would love to have that peach cobbler.

Mr. WORKS: We'll meet for food.

Ms. WESTERINEN: Consider it done.

MARTIN: Shay Banks-Young, Julia Jefferson Westerinen and David Works are all descendants of Thomas Jefferson. They are being honored tonight for their work to bridge the divide in their family line and to heal the legacies of slavery and they were kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations.

Ms. BANKS-YOUNG: Thanks for having us.

Ms. WESTERINEN: Thank you.

Mr. WORKS: Thank you.

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