Thursday, August 20, 2009

White House Entitlement

The descendants of Paul Jennings, who was a slave in James Madison’s White House, are being invited back to the White House for a reunion next week. Their treatment is far better than the Blacks who claimed to be descendants of Thomas Jefferson.

Ten years ago, when DNA findings about Jefferson’s descendants were published, several members of the Jefferson/Hemings family had their first meeting on The Oprah Winfrey Show. One of Jefferson’s white descendants, Lucian Truscott IV, invited his Hemings cousins to the next annual Jefferson family reunion at Monticello in May 1999. Michele Cooley Quille attended that Monticello meeting to present the dying wish of her father, Robert H. Cooley III, to be buried at Monticello. Cooley, a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, had died suddenly on July 20, 1998. The Monticello Association, consisting of lineal descendants of Jefferson, denied her request because the DNA evidence wasn’t yet published.

The Cooley family represents a part of Black America that wants recognition for having “a President in the family.” In February 2001, the Cooley family went to Virginia’s General Assembly to witness the passing of a resolution that publicly acknowledges the growing body of evidence that Jefferson and Hemings had children together. Two months later, President George W. Bush invited the Jefferson and Hemings families to the White House for a celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s 258th birthday.

The Jefferson/Hemings relationship has since been acknowledged by the William and Mary Quarterly, the National Genealogical Society, and, in January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson (Memorial) Foundation, which owns Monticello. Nevertheless, in May 2002 the Monticello Association voted against admitting descendants of Sally Hemings into their organization, concluding that there was not sufficient evidence to prove Jefferson fathered Hemings's children.

Then on February 24, 2003, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation revised its statement regarding the children of Sally Hemings: “Although the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings has been for many years … a subject of intense interest to historians and the public, the evidence is not definitive, and the complete story may never be known. The Foundation encourages our visitors and patrons, based on what evidence does exist, to make up their own minds as to the true nature of the relationship.” Thus, even strong scientific evidence butts up against white racial resistance to a broadened understanding of American nationhood that includes Black Americans as members of a founding family.

Mr. Jennings’s story feels “cleaner,” he doesn’t claim to be related to Madison, he bought his freedom, worked in the government’s pension office, bought property and even helped support the former first lady Dolley Madison with “small sums from my own pocket” when she fell on hard times. This is a story that even whites can be proud of. Jefferson’s descendants don’t have it so easy. I’d rather be invited to the White House, than fight to be buried at Monticello. Fortunately, Sasha and Malai’s kids won’t have to prove there was a President in their family.

They’ll probably call him Grandpa.

2 comments:

Walker said...

Well, Prof, I actually have met and interacted with a number of people who calim kinship with Mr. Jefferson in my formative years in the District. Recently in Glosuter, VA, I met a gentleman who offered to tell me the story of how he connected with Hemings and Madison Jennings. Seems the old planter were closer than even the records demonstrate. I by this I intend nothing salacious. I'm just saying. It's a Virginia Thing. I doubt if the rest of the US would understand.

Your Boy,

Khalid Moussa

Duchess Harris said...

Brother Moussa,

I deeply appreciate your response on sister scholar. This post generated 4 responses on the Star Tribune and 46 on facebook. The one of facebook that upset me the most speaks to your assertion that it's a Virginia Thing.

One person (whom I will not name), wrote,

"I might write that most whites are unaware/don't care about this situation. Perhaps you are referring to the Monticello Association, an organization I had never heard of until I had read your piece.

Being the grandchild of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, it seems likely there will never be one of my ilk in the White House during my lifetime."

This person is the incoming chief of staff at a major hospital and is working on his MBA. Many would find him to be intellectually gifted.

As we used to say in the '80s, "It's a Black thing, you just don't understand."

Your Black Virginian Friend,

Duch

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