For Thomas Jefferson descendant, complex reality of race, family at center of American history

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GREAT BARRINGTON — In 1998, a few constructs got blown to bits by some DNA test results.

The results proved the truth of an oral tradition among African-Americans, that Thomas Jefferson had had a 38-year relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, which produced seven surviving children.

Ten days after the results were released, descendants with a blood match for the Jefferson-Hemings union were on the Oprah Winfrey show.

By spring, more descendants came forward and congregated at Monticello, Jefferson's plantation in Charlottesville, Va.

One of those was a 19-year-old college student at the time. Shannon LaNier is a sixth great-grandson of Jefferson and Hemings. At the gathering, LaNier hollered for everyone to pose on the front steps of Monticello for a photograph.

"That would not be appropriate," LaNier said he was told by a Monticello employee.

They did it anyway. And a former New York fashion photographer and human rights activist took the symbolic photo that hit the evening news.

"We broke a lot of rules that day," said photographer Jane Feldman, including her Saturday night phone call to the editor of Random House.

"We had a book deal in 24 hours," she said. "There's something really powerful that happens when the truth comes out."

Feldman and LaNier, who co-authored the book, "Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family," talked about the meaning of race, at Monument Mountain Regional High School on Tuesday, as part of the school's W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series.

And this is just the type of dialogue Du Bois would have approved of.

In first grade, LaNier stood and told his teacher on Presidents Day that he was a descendant of Jefferson.

"She told me to sit down," he said.

The next day, his mother marched in and told the teacher it was true, and was passed down through the generations.

"Where's the proof?" the teacher asked her.

The DNA tests were an effort by Jefferson's family to disprove the third U.S. president's relationship with Hemings. It was his family's denial of the descendants' burial rights at Monticello that kicked off the tests.

"It backfired," Feldman said.

And LaNier, now 38, said that a white-looking person who is also black, or a black-looking person who is also white, didn't always make life easy for descendants, especially knowing THAT the estimable patriarch owned their forebears.

LaNier said Jefferson's love of the agrarian society was one that kept slavery intact.

"I thought, `Why couldn't you have done more? You were president.'"

"What makes family?" LaNier and Feldman asked the audience.

From around the room, the audience alternated with "blood" and "love."

Eugene Foster, a physician and pathologist who studied the Jefferson-Heming DNA and helped give that story scientific legs, told LaNier that love does matter, and that you are shaped by the forces of your cultural heritage as much as DNA.

And Foster had told LaNier that progress in DNA technology will show how that "everybody is related to everybody."

"That's why this biological aspect of the story, to me, is the least important," Foster told LaNier. "It's classical science — every answer opens more questions than it answers."

"Jefferson's Children" records LaNier's experience traveling the country to meet his relatives, as Feldman documents the visits with photos.

Feldman said that, as they traveled, they saw "the same face appear with different complexions and hair."

So many were accomplished people, Feldman said, something the co-authors and Foster said might be something to do with having such an illustrious ancestor.

"Why do we need the DNA?" she said.

Hemings had often traveled to Paris with Jefferson to take care of his children, and it is on one of those trips that the relationship began, Feldman said.

Martha Jefferson had died in childbirth after 10 years of marriage to Jefferson.

To illustrate the complexity of racial identity, and how any of us could find surprises in our DNA, LaNier shows the audience a 19th-century photo of a very white-looking family.

"These are my black ancestors," he said.

And up popped up a picture of Anita Hemings, the first African-American graduate of Vassar College.

Her family had always told her she was white, "but she always felt other," LaNier said. When she revealed her black heritage, he said, she was in danger of not being allowed to graduate.

He said it was for such reasons that a known heritage was often not divulged.

"You've got a lot of explaining to do when a black kid pops out of a white couple," he said, laughing.

LaNier said straight, honest talk about race is crucial to sweeping out constructs that divide us.

"Stop being so PC (politically correct)," he advised the audience.

And things can sometimes go surprisingly well when a shake-up happens.

LaNier's visit to relatives turned up one who grew up in a family of racists, but who told him he "broke the cycle of racism."

"Dan Hemmings is the only one who doesn't have the Confederate flag tattooed on his body," he said of the family that had, at some point, added another "m" to the name.

It's a reminder of a dark past. But one that Monticello spent $38 million to try to educate people about, Feldman said. The money was spent rehabilitating the plantation's slave quarters so people could see it and feel it, she added.

LaNier spent the night in one of the slave cabins.

"It was the same sunset that my ancestors went to sleep under," he said. "It was beautiful. But were my ancestors thinking about the beauty?"

LaNier said that, as well as being moved by this complex legacy, there is plenty of anger toward Jefferson and what he did and didn't do.

"Sometimes I hate him," he said.

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871 or @BE_heatherbellow.


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