Descendants enlightened at gathering - Orange County Review: Orangenews

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Descendants enlightened at gathering

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Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2007 2:07 am | Updated: 2:31 pm, Thu Jan 24, 2013.

Paul Thompson's parents had told him that he was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but it has taken a weekend of hearing stories from the descendants of those who were at Monticello more than 200 years ago for that concept to fully sink in.

"They told me and I was like, 'Oh, all right,'" Thompson, 18, said on Saturday while standing in front of an oversized family tree poster in the James Monroe Room at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel. "This hits closer to home."

He is related to Thomas Woodson, whose descendants believe was Hemings' first-born child and was fathered by Jefferson.

About 250 descendants of many who lived and worked - slave or otherwise - at Monticello during the Jefferson era are congregating in Charlottesville this weekend to spark and foster relationships and embrace their family identities, marking the first such gathering of Monticello relatives.

They discussed family ties and toured downtown and Monticello.

"[Monticello] was a community," said Diana Redman, one of the six committee members who organized the Monticello Community Gathering. "Everybody contributed, everybody played a role. We need to continue that sense of community. Everybody has to play a role and everybody has to own [up to] someone. This weekend is about people getting together - willingly or not - to help create a wonderful thing. It's an opportunity to get beyond the racial issues. It's making it more than an abstract idea - it has a face, it has a personality, it has a voice, whatever that 'it' is."

In planning for the event, Redman said she learned how the Jefferson legacy is still ingrained in the area.

"It's not dead history," the Ohio native said. "It's still living in Charlottesville."

Redman is a descendant of Madison Hemings, one of Hemings' sons.

Books and studies both supporting and refuting Jefferson as the father of five of Hemings' children have been written over the past 200 years.

Photo albums and history books lined the tables in the James Monroe Room, among them "Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family."

Its author, Shannon Lanier, hopes that the gathering symbolizes something profound that all American families can relate to.

"With this being the 'first family,' the idea is if they can get along with the many racial barriers, why can't we all-" said Lanier, 28, a sixth great-grandson of Hemings.

Glancing up from a photo album, Ada Woodson Adams, a great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Hemings, spoke of the significance of the Monticello gathering.

"With the lack of history written about the community itself, this is an opportunity for us to learn more about what our ancestors did and contributed to help make Jefferson the man that he became," said Woodson Adams, who has been researching her family genealogy for 40 years.

"It's encouraging," she said, "because we're hoping the next generation picks up this history and continues it."

But the conflict continues, to a degree. A plan to hold a sunrise service today at the Monticello graveyard was turned down by the Monticello Association in May, said Virginia "Prinny" Anderson, a great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Jefferson who helped organize the reunion and is a member of the association.

The Monticello Association is a group of white descendants of Jefferson that owns the graveyard where Jefferson is buried.

The fight is an old one. The Monticello Association, which has about 1,000 members, has adamantly denied membership to descendants of Jefferson's black slave, Sally Hemings, citing lack of evidence that Thomas Jefferson fathered her children. Five years ago, the association denied permission for a Hemings descendant to be buried in the cemetery.

DNA testing in 1998 showed that the Hemings family descended from a male member of the Jefferson family, and some respected historians believe it's very likely that member was Thomas Jefferson.

Denying access to even hold a service inside the cemetery is "silly," said David Works, who helped organize the reunion. "They still seem to think blacks want to be buried in the cemetery. But they don't. It's all kind of silly. But it doesn't ruin our weekend."

The plan for the weekend had been to lay a wreath at Jefferson's grave after the sunrise service. Instead, the service will be held at Jefferson's adjacent farm, Tufton.

Monticello, which is owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and has no control over the cemetery located just below the mountaintop mansion, serves as a host to many reunions, including that of the Monticello Community Gathering and the Monticello Association. It hosted a reception for the Hemings Family Reunion in 2003.

Media General News Service contributed to this story.

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