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Despite the chilly reception at the Monticello Association reunions, one person Lanier met there has turned out to be not just a relative but also a good friend. Julia Westerinen, 69, looks white, but she is descended from Sally Hemings' youngest son, Eston. Growing up in Madison, Wis., in the 1930s and '40s, Westerinen was not allowed to play with black children. "My parents told me to stick to my own kind," she says. Even as an adult, she realized that her friendships with blacks had been superficial. "I thought we were friends, but I never had them over to my house, and they never had me to theirs," she says. She never knew of her ancestor Eston. That is because Eston was light-skinned enough to pass for white. In order to hide his connection with his darker-skinned Hemings relatives, he changed his name to E.H. Jefferson and cut ties with his black family. Westerinen finally discovered her connection in 1974, after Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, a biography by Fawn Brodie, uncovered the details of the Hemings family.
When Westerinen met her black cousins at the Hemings reunion in 1999 she was finally able to embrace her biracial heritage. "My life has changed a lot," says Westerinen, an artist, who lives with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and 11-year-old granddaughter in a gray-shingled house with white trim in Staten Island, N.Y. She organized the first Hemings reunion, in July 2003, and has joined up with Shay Banks-Young, who is black and descended from Madison Hemings, to give talks about race relations. "I have a new mission in life, which is to expose the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done. We want to heal the racial scars of this nation." As for the association members who still won't acknowledge the Hemings' heritage, she says, "If they want to hold on to their prejudices, then let them. We're moving on."