Late one afternoon in May, a large group of people wearing name tags gathered under the shade of a giant tulip poplar tree on the south terrace of Monticello. As the last of the day's tourists were taken by shuttle bus down the winding, single-lane road leading away from the hilltop home, this lingering band nibbled on cheese cubes and sipped red wine as they admired the building's imposing white columns and soaring rotunda. These lingerers were more than tourists, more than guests. They were Jefferson's family. Many breathed a sigh of relief that the 90°F midday heat was giving way to such a perfect spring evening.
The good weather wasn't the only thing putting them at ease. This was the first time in six years that the Monticello Association, which comprises some 700 descendants of Jefferson, had held its annual reunion without a horde of reporters and photographers in attendance--or the extended family members who had triggered the controversy. The once obscure association, which administers the graveyard at Monticello, got caught in a media storm in 1998, after a DNA study confirmed to the satisfaction of many that a male member of Jefferson's family had fathered at least one child with a mulatto slave named Sally Hemings (she gave birth to at least six, and possibly seven, children in all). If that Jefferson was the third President, as many historians believe, it means at least some of Sally Hemings' descendants were Thomas Jefferson's too. After a very public invitation on The Oprah Winfrey Show in November 1998 by an association member, dozens of Hemings began attending the group's annual reunion, albeit as guests, not members.
Getting invited, as it turned out, wasn't the same as being welcome. While a handful of association members supported the Hemings' inclusion, most did not. In 2002, the group voted 74 to 6 to deny them full membership. The already strained relations turned decidedly frigid last year when the association restricted the number of Hemings allowed to attend its reunion and attempted to bar them from setting foot inside the graveyard at Monticello. Paulie Abeles, the wife of the association's president at the time, even admitted to having secretly infiltrated an online discussion group that the Hemings had been using, in order to spy on their messages. "It was just an ugly, ugly situation," says Lucian Truscott IV, the Jefferson descendant and association member who originally invited the Hemings.
So, what began as an extended-family reunion has disintegrated into a bitter family feud between Jefferson's white family and his black one. For the first time since the DNA results came out, not a single Hemings attended the association's annual reunion this past May. "Nobody wants to be where they aren't wanted. The environment felt stuffy and very formal," says Shannon Lanier, a Hemings who works as a TV production assistant in New York City and co-authored a book about the family called Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family. Instead, last year the Hemings began holding their own reunions at Monticello, complete with a sunrise graveyard service at the recently discovered slave burial site on the estate.