Jefferson's Secret Life
Did the author of the Declaration of Independence take a slave for his mistress? DNA tests say yes
The confirmation of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship will also play a pivotal role in dispelling the myth of separation between blacks and whites. "Jefferson's literal embrace of Sally, producing children, becomes almost symbolic of what the South was," notes Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming book on slavery, Rituals of Blood. "What we have now is a powerful, symbolic blurring of the lines, with the most famous of the founding fathers intimately, biologically involved [with his black slave]."
Ultimately it was word of mouth among Hemings family members that kept the story alive. Nearly 50 years after Jefferson's death, Sally Hemings's penultimate child, Madison Hemings, confides in an obscure Ohio newspaper that Jefferson was his father and, in fact, sired all of his mother's other offspring. Another ex-slave from Monticello, Israel Jefferson, backs up the tale in a later account to the same newspaper. But Jefferson defenders will have none of it. Known among critics as an overly protective "Monticello mafia," they seek other explanations for the several children Hemings had that were obviously fathered by white men, some of whom bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson. A year after Madison Hemings's Ohio interview, James Parton's Life of Thomas Jefferson purported to solve the Hemings mystery by laying the paternity of her white offspring off on Jefferson's philandering nephew, Peter Carr, son of Jefferson's sister. Others blamed another notorious Carr, Samuel.
The parentage question. Thus it was that there were two parallel universes of thought on the Jefferson-Hemings question (story, Page 64). Among the Jefferson specialists, the question of his parentage of any Hemings offspring was answered, almost universally, in the negative. Among the multifarious Hemings heirs and in the wider black community, meanwhile, there was no doubt but that the man from Monticello had fathered children with Hemings. "Those of us who are descendants have 100 percent certainty--you cannot modify 100 percent certainty," says Hemings descendant Michele Cooley-Quille, who comes from the Thomas Woodson branch of the family.
After the 1974 publication of Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by historian Fawn Brodie, mainstream white America began to buy into the story's veracity. But among the academic elite, the 1974 bestseller ignited a furious debate. Brodie's arguments, while highly persuasive, were not conclusive, and many Jefferson scholars refused to embrace them.
That's pretty much where matters stood. Until now. In fact, had it not been for Gene Foster, that's probably where matters might have stood, period. Dr. Eugene A. Foster, technically retired after a distinguished career as a pathology professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine and the University of Virginia, is a genial bear of a man, 6 foot 4, the strong, silent type. Foster jokes that he is only "technically" retired because he keeps himself busy with a constant stream of "projects of interest." One of those, as it happened, was Thomas Jefferson. Which is not altogether surprising, since Jefferson's presence is felt everywhere in Charlottesville, where Foster lives with his wife, Jane, a retired instructor of French. But Foster got onto Jefferson in a roundabout way. At dinner one evening back in 1996 with a family friend, the conversation turned to the subject of Anastasia, the daughter of the last Romanov czar, Nicholas. Specifically, the talk centered on how DNA had been used to determine whether a deceased Charlottesville woman, Anna Anderson, was the Romanov daughter Anastasia, as she claimed. Winifred Bennett, the Fosters' friend, proposed that the same methodology might be used to resolve the Jefferson-Hemings mystery. The reverberations from Fawn Brodie's book were still echoing in Charlottesville. Gene Foster was intrigued.