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Hemings descendants stand by family histories

For the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the meaning of new DNA evidence on the relationship between master and slave is not academic.

"I still believe in our family's oral and documented history - if it means something was wrong with the test, then something was wrong with the test," says Byron Woodson, a descendant of Sally Hemings's eldest son, Thomas. The Woodsons have the best-documented history of all Hemings descendants, but their claims were not confirmed by recent DNA tests, which found a link between Jefferson descendants and the youngest Hemings son, Eston.

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The Woodsons started reunions in the 1970s. Many family members discovered that they shared the same oral histories of a relationship with Thomas Jefferson. "I learned about it from my dad. It was always sort of hush, hush....They weren't proud of the fact, because these people were never married," says Robert Golden, president of the Pittsburgh-based Woodson Family Association.

Scholars who have worked on the oral-history project at Monticello, Jefferson's home, say they have been impressed with the quality and depth of the Woodson family histories. "I've been struck by how strong and consistent these family histories are," says Dianne Swann-Wright, director of special projects at Monticello.

Jefferson descendants are discussing the new research and whether to open their family reunions to Hemings descendants. "I'd kind of like to have this. My experience with the Woodsons is that they're a very accomplished family, very strong on education," says Robert Gillespie, head of the Monticello Association, descendants of Jefferson's daughters, Martha and Maria.

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