Jefferson and Hemings

I would like to congratulate Maura Singleton for the well-researched and written article “Anatomy of a Mystery” (Fall 2007), which presents both sides of the Jefferson-Hemings issue. The quote from Joseph Ellis—“History is an argument without end”—is a reasonable quote, but I don’t believe that I would use one from such a Jefferson basher who has a real credibility problem, e.g., he was placed on leave from Mount Holyoke College for lying for over 20 years to his students.

It should be pointed out that DNA evidence cannot prove paternity but can disprove paternity, as it did in the Woodson family’s case of claiming descent from Thomas Jefferson. Oral history is so unreliable that it is not permitted in a case of law. When the descendents of Eston Hemings changed their claim as being descended from an uncle of Thomas Jefferson in 1975 to being directly related to Thomas, this shows that oral history is not reliable. Eston and/or his descendants started the “uncle” story to hide their African-American background, but there is no proof or evidence that they were trying to distance themselves from Thomas Jefferson. There is more information that the Carr nephews of Jefferson could have fathered the other four children of Sally Hemings than anyone else. Sally Hemings apparently never told anyone that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of her children.

The DNA study by Monticello was not unanimous in its decision, and the dissenting report was initially hidden from the media and public. The statistical study that suggests a 99 percent probability that Jefferson was the father of Sally’s children was significantly flawed. For example, if Jefferson was impotent or was totally innocent, the report would still say there was a 99 percent chance that he was the father. This report was examined by biomedical and biogenetic statisticians and also a large statistical company and found to be deficient and not acceptable. The conception dates for this study were not reliable for most of Sally’s children. Alumni can believe that the father of the University of Virginia was the morally proper gentleman that we had always thought.

White McKenzie “Ken” Wallenborn (Med ’55, Res ’61)
President, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society
Charlottesville, Va.


I just wanted to send you a short note commending you for the outstanding piece on the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. This is without a doubt the fairest and most balanced coverage of the issue I have seen, and the scholarship exceeds that of many of the historians on both sides of the debate.

Robert F. Turner (Law ’81,’96)
Associate Director, Center for National Security Law
UVA School of Law
Charlottesville, Va.


Perhaps I am simply blind to the implications of the Jefferson-Hemings connection, but I fail to understand the furor over Jefferson’s supposed fathering of Heming’s children. So I was dumbfounded when Maura Singleton wrote (and it’s difficult to say whether she is making an assertion or paraphrasing John Works Jr.) that “Hanging in the balance is Jefferson’s legacy as a founding father and his place in American thought and political philosophy.”

Surely the keeping of slaves is a more grievous injury to our modern sensibilities than is an affair, and yet that failing has not kept Jefferson from the prominence he deserves. Jefferson was a man of many contradictions. As Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I express no opinion as to whether Sally Hemings’ children were really fathered by Jefferson. But what Jefferson did outside the public eye—commendable, reprehensible or otherwise—does not and cannot affect his legacy as a founding father. If anything, his humanity serves to make his achievements that much more remarkable. Eyler Coates would have us view Jefferson as some colonial Prometheus, a giant striding across the land, secure in his moral and intellectual superiority to the common folk as he brings enlightenment to the masses, untouched by base human emotions such as lust. I find preferable the view that Jefferson was, first and last, a human being, with human foibles and human failings, who nonetheless rose to the challenges of his generation and, in his writings, spoke truths greater than he knew.

Kevin Grierson (Col ’87, Law ’92)
Hampton, Va.


Certain eminent scholars build Hemings-Jefferson paternity proof on historical evidence, DNA and statistics. I believe Maura Singleton’s fine article merits comments concerning the two scientific components.

Singleton established science’s inability to identify Eston Hemings’ father among at least two dozen carriers of Jefferson family DNA. But that shows precisely why science could never have attempted to answer, as she asserted, the paternity question outright. The scientists always reported an intention for their DNA analysis merely to “throw some scientific light on the dispute.”

Nor did the DNA disprove that any of Jefferson’s Carr nephews “fathered Hemings’ children.” It only disproved Carr paternity of Eston. And yes, the DNA showed no Hemings-Carr match—but only excluded that match for Eston’s line.

These blurring overstatements call to mind major overstatements, unmentioned by Singleton, that blurred understanding worldwide in 1998, when Nature’s editors misleadingly headlined the DNA scientists’ report “Jefferson fathered slave’s last child.”

The blurring has endured. Recently in Parade magazine, a law professor misreported: “DNA analysis indicated that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with his slave Sally Hemings.”

Singleton also unfortunately revalidated the free pass that credulous historians and journalists, but not scientists, grant to a statistical, quantitative study of the qualitatively meaningful partial coincidences between Hemings’ possible conception times and Jefferson’s sporadic Monticello visits.

Singleton unskeptically endorsed as “significant” that study’s finding that the “correlation … suggests a 99 percent probability” that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children. But correlation isn’t causation. At most, statistical science could only investigate whether Jefferson was present more often when Hemings conceived than would be expected by chance alone.

Even that would require questionable assumptions to circumvent unknowns. And any actual, quantified correlation would be low in any case, because for each of four children, Jefferson missed days or weeks of Hemings’ approximately month-long conception window. By failing even to engage that elementary biostatistical reality, the study failed to engage its own basic statistical question, rendering its finding not “significant,” but meaningless.

Steven T. Corneliussen
Poquoson, Va.


Mr. Jefferson has been in his grave for well over a century and a half now. His personal life, including its sexual aspects, ended at his death. Surely it is his vision and ideals that we should be defending rather than worrying about a possible personal failure on his part to live up to some of them—we all fall short in that regard. I am far more offended when I hear Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson-like evangelists portray Jefferson and the other “Founding Fathers” as virtual born-again Christians, intent on founding a “Christian nation,” when it was precisely the views such people represent that Jefferson was referring to when he swore “eternal hostility” toward such “tyranny over the mind of man.”

Yet I suppose it is inevitable. Less than 36 hours after President Abraham Lincoln’s death, the clergy were equating his Good Friday assassination with the execution of Jesus. It took decades before the real Lincoln, who loved both sex and off-color jokes and far preferred the company of sinners to saints, could emerge with all his true greatness from beneath the weight of such nonsense.

As Mr. Jefferson would have wished, the University of Virginia is the greatest testimonial to his life. Let us honor his memory, as well as that of Ms. Hemings, by putting the obsession with this nonsense to eternal rest.

Jeffrey J. W. Baker (Col ’53)
Ivy, Va.

Cover Perspectives

I enjoyed your cover for the Fall 2007 issue. Scanning for familiar faces in the crowd (on the left side) brought back fond memories of many sunny Saturdays in Scott Stadium.

Linda Gattis Shull (Educ ’71)
Charlotte, N.C.


I just wanted to express my dismay at the cover of the latest magazine, titled “Changing Traditions.” How sad that the faces in the past and those of today are mostly Caucasian—all while the University touts its commitment to diversity. Surely a competent and considerate editor would have noticed the image this cover was portraying. Maybe you need a new set of eyes at the publication and a new perspective.

Deborah Short (Col ’81)
Arlington, Va.


When the veterans of World War II entered the University of Virginia in October 1946, there was an orientation to lecture the new students on the customs of the University. The young student authorities said you did not speak until you were formally introduced. Whereupon all the veterans stood up and introduced themselves to each other, thus resulting in every veteran getting to know all the new students.

The next young student leader said all first-year students were to wear hats. Several veterans got up and stated in response that they had worn steel helmets for four years and that they would not wear any more hats.

After that meeting in October 1946, those two customs came to an end. However, the student body still wore coats and ties to class.

Amsbry M. Brooks Jr. (Com ’50)
Virginia Beach

No matter how you package it, the new marching band is nowhere close to the “good ole” Pep Band when speaking of Virginia tradition. The irreverence of the old Pep Band is still missed by many alumni. We now have a “politically correct” marching band that is musically talented and very proficient but devoid of the satirical humor that made the original Pep Band unique.

Dan Frazier (Col ’74, Educ ’80)
Lynchburg, Va.

The Special Collections Department recently received a gift of 22 letters written by William Poindexter Moore (1876-1932), a student during the 1895-1896 session. In a letter dated Feb. 22, 1896, he writes: “Yesterday, although the thermometer was about 16 and the wind blowing very hard, one of the fellows here pulled off all of his clothes—everything except his shoes—and ran up the mountain to the reservoir and back again, a distance of about 6 miles. It was to win a bet of $10, which one of the boys had made him. He didn’t seem a bit the worse from it today. It created a good deal of comment in college.”

We thought you’d enjoy knowing that the University tradition of streaking is at least 110 years old.

Ann L.S. Southwell (Grad ’73)
Manuscripts cataloger, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library
University of Virginia Library

Living With Diabetes

This is a response to Pam Edmonds’ essay, “A Mother’s Challenge,” (Fall 2007) from a father who has a daughter (Class of ’04) who has lived with Type I diabetes since the age of 4. My wife and I teared up in empathy and sympathy at Ms. Edmonds’ well-written account of the diagnosis and subsequent maintenance regimen of her daughter.

However, when I asked Rebecca, our daughter, for her thoughts, she said, “I guess it’s hard for parents, but I have never let my diabetes stop me from doing what I want.”

In brief: she has done athletics every season since elementary school (only partly to control her numbers); won letters in track, soccer, basketball and field hockey; was recruited by Dartmouth and Columbia for field hockey; and since graduation has taught windsurfing on both Guam and Hawaii. Now she is training to run a marathon in Honolulu, where she works as the editor and production manager for Aloha Guides.

Pam, just know you and your daughter can do everything that she (and you) wants to do. As they say, “You have diabetes; it doesn’t have you.”

Ned Cummings
Virginia Beach

Quadricentennial Poem

I have not noticed the publication of any alumni poetry in the Virginia Magazine, but in case you would like to start a new tradition, you might consider the following:

Four Centuries

Still Charles and Henry guard the sunken
Mouth of Susquehanna’s

So far we have come.
Looking back, what do we see?

Proud of prologued past,
We cling to Whence. But mark:
From Whence the road must run to Whither.

And mark again:
History preserveth Knowledge
But Heritage doth not always
Transmit Wisdom

Please rise.

Unafraid to follow
Truth and Caritas
Wherever they may lead
Though Error glare
Shade your eyes. Look up!
What do you see?
O, say!

Walter H. Beaman (Law ’48)
Jupiter, Fla.

Near-Death Experience

I read with interest the article on near-death experiences [“Altered States,” Summer 2007]. While getting my B.S. degree at the University, I was enrolled in AFROTC. After graduation from flight school (top 10 percent), I was selected to be a fighter pilot. En route to Vietnam, my F-4D Phantom had a mechanical failure over the Mojave Desert’s China Lake weapons range, which resulted in my ejecting from the aircraft. A part of the aircraft (a fuel pipe) went through my flight helmet, causing a traumatic brain injury. I had one and a half swings in my parachute before I landed in the burning wreckage. I wandered from one piece of burning desert to another in a concussed state, suffering third-degree burns over 42 percent of my body.

In those days, this was considered a fatal burn. Luckily, I was air-evaced to the burn ward at Fort Sam Houston’s Brooke Army Hospital’s Surgical Research Unit. The telegram the Air Force sent my wife was: “Husband’s condition critical, survival doubtful.”

During this time, I had been prescribed narcotic analgesics to alleviate pain. I was on Tylenol #3. This did nothing to alleviate the pain of my burns and their debridement.

During numerous debridements and skin grafts, I spiked a temperature of 104 degrees several days in a row. All lab tests available at that time came back negative.

I found out that what relieved the pain sensation was to concentrate my entire conscious being on a spot on the ceiling. This removed my conscious being from my body and relieved the pain.

One afternoon, when my temperature was spiking to 104 degrees and I was “in the ceiling out of my pain,” I visualized an extremely white light at the end of a tunnel of white. My impression was that if I chose to go toward (embrace) the white light, all pain and discomfort as well as worldly cares would cease to exist (e.g., I would die). However, I was very aware of the fact that I had a choice—that being to embrace the light (die) or negate the light (live).

I chose the latter.

Kraig W. Cummings (Com ’65)
Glen Allen, Va.

Wind Power Redux

I read the article concerning wind-powered generation towers in Highland County [Summer 2007] and the follow-up letter from James C. Seabury Jr. (Col ’56) with both interest and a bit of a jaundiced eye. Dr. Seabury was straightforward enough to mention his own personal interest in the project. But his summation of the arguments against the project on his property in Highland County seemed to come down only to, in his own estimation, NIMBYism, the desire of residents to live in their own community without having outside interests forced upon them.

One wonders, therefore, if Dr. Seabury’s commitment to alternate energy generation would be somewhat less enthusiastic if the towers he proposes to build, or any other form of generation plant for that matter, were planned for his own backyard in Florida. Certainly the residents of Highland County deserve the same opportunity to protect their own environment that Dr. Seabury would insist upon for his own community.

Mark Schofer (Col ’75)
Charlottesville, Va.

Advertising Pepsi

We are writing to comment on the Pepsi ads that have appeared in the magazine depicting the head coaches of the men’s basketball and football teams. One caption says, “Pepsi is the official soft drink of the new John Paul Jones Arena,” and a similar ad states, “Pepsi is the official soft drink of the University of Virginia.”

As Charlottesville health professionals interested in the health of the community, we are appalled that the University of Virginia is complicit in using the stature of its sports teams, coach and official magazine in support of products that are largely responsible for the current surging health crisis of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The widespread use of sugared drinks is a major part of this public health crisis, primarily fueled by the billions of dollars of advertising and sponsorships (like that in the Virginia Magazine) that bombard us and our children with persuasive ads to consume unhealthy food-like substances.

That UVA will sell its soul and sacrifice its integrity for Pepsi’s dollars speaks poorly for this magazine and for the University.

With any concern for the public’s well-being, UVA should not allow sponsorships from soft drink manufacturers. You would not do it for products that present other public health hazards such as official cigarette, official whiskey, official crack cocaine, official lead paint or official toxic pesticide. So spare us and our impressionable children and teens more propaganda for products that will wreck our health and health system.

Martin Albert, M.D. (Faculty)
Peggy Wright RD, Ph.D. (Nurs ’04)
Pat Meyer-Peterson, CMT
Kent Peterson, M.D.
Charlottesville, Va.


James C. Miller’s letter in the Fall issue [about the magazine’s apparent liberal bias] expresses my sentiments perfectly. I am surprised you printed it.

Your protest immediately following Miller’s letter is hardly persuasive to those of sound sense, who have learned from experience to discount words and judge by deeds alone.

Sadly, based on the empirical evidence, Mr. Miller wins!

J. Randolph Segar Jr. (Com ’56)
Midlothian, Va.

Please have the courage to stand up to the conservative demagogues when they repeat their mantra of a liberal media bias.

They whine about your coverage of the Iraq war but they forget that the war was naked aggression based on a fictitious claim of weapons of mass destruction backed up by secret compelling evidence that turned out to be the unsupported claims of con men. Also, the terrorists used Iraq after we invaded and removed Saddam, not before. Bush is the one who turned Iraq into a terrorist recruitment poster.

How would the mainstream media treat a Democratic president who revoked the right to trial and authorized torture (harsh treatment for you media apologists)? Bush then filled the Iraq war effort with incompetent people whose only qualification was having voted for Bush. A Democrat would have been tarred and feathered by the establishment media.

Finally, I went to UVA between 1969 and 1975, but I rarely see photos of people looking like we did. This was true even back then. The UVA media has avoided acknowledging our existence (except as a curiosity) even though we sacrificed to bring civil rights to all people and stopped a stupid war. Instead of a medal, the media likes to blame us for the turmoil of the times.

Robert John Jeffrey (Educ ’75)
Alexandria, Va.

Mistaken Identity

I was surprised and delighted to learn that the Fall 2007 issue of the Virginia Magazine included a story on page 48 about my lab’s research on Alzheimer’s disease. Please note, though, that you incorrectly listed my name as Paul Bloom. Take heart that this is not the worst offense ever directed at my identity. In my college yearbook (University of Pennsylvania, 1973), my personal photograph was entered above the name George Gloom. Thanks for not repeating that mistake.

George S. Bloom
Professor of Biology and Cell Biology
University of Virginia