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Letter from America: Slave girl descendants battle to join the Jeffersons.

Shay Banks-Young has waited all her life for public recognition as a black descendant of Thomas Jefferson.

Her family's belief that Jefferson fathered the children of his mulatto slave Sally Hemings has been all but validated by a DNA study and a report by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which oversees Jefferson's Monticello home.

But the Monticello Association, a separate organisation of descendants from Jefferson's daughters, Martha Jefferson Randolph and Maria Jefferson Eppes, remains unconvinced.

More than a year after the DNA study was released, the 700-member association has not officially acknowledged Banks-Young and other Hemings descendants as part of the family.

The association oversees the family's one-acre cemetery at Monticello, where about 200 Jefferson descendants are buried.

"I feel like we should have the right to become members of the association if we want to," said Banks-Young, aged 55, of Columbus, Ohio, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Sally Hemings' son, Madison Hemings.

"We also should have the right to be buried in the cemetery if we so choose."

Scholars have been divided over the Jefferson-Hemings paternity question for more than 200 years. The issue inspired the TV programme, Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.

Jefferson, who took office in 1801, was accused publicly in 1802 of having children with Sally Hemings. A DNA study released in November 1998 concluded a Jefferson male likely fathered Hemings' youngest son, Eston.

Last month, the foundation acknowledged for the first time that Jefferson is the likely father of at least one of Hemings' six children. Committee members spent months researching the DNA test, historical documents and circumstantial evidence putting Jefferson at Monticello when her children were conceived.

The Monticello Association had planned to release its decision at its annual meeting in May, but that has been delayed until a committee can review the foundation's study.

"We're taking several things into consideration," said association leader James Truscott, of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. "This is a decision that shouldn't be made in haste."

Lucian Truscott IV, a Jefferson descendant who stirred controversy when he invited the Hemings family to last year's meeting, believes that it's a racist attitude among some association members that is keeping Hemings descendants out.

"I don't know what other proof is needed," said Truscott, of Los Angeles. "To me the foundation's report was the final nail in the coffin. It was like the Civil Rights Act for the Hemings descendants."

Even if Thomas Jefferson's paternity was established conclusively, the Jefferson-Hemings children would be illegitimate, which could create other obstacles for the Hemings family, said R Shackelford III, a lawyer and chairman of the Monticello Association's membership advisory committee.

Among other things, Shackelford said, the committee is looking into legal conditions placed on the cemetery and the legal interpretation of "descendant," which he says has changed over the years.

Lucian Truscott plans to invite the Hemings family to the meeting in May. He remains optimistic, but doesn't expect the issue to be resolved in the near future.

"If our family opens up the door and lets the Hemings family in, it will be acknowledging that the third president of the United States has a white family and a black family," he said. "That would be the beginning of racial healing, not only for our family, but for the rest of the country."

Kia Shant'e Breaux
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Author:Breaux, Kia Shant
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 14, 2000
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