Mitten Hall’s Great Court was the perfect setting for a dialogue between two women like Julia Jefferson-Westerinen and Shay Banks-Young. The building has a lot of history and an ominous presence to it — precisely what these women needed to reveal their incredible history to an attentive audience. The Main Campus Program Board and Student Activities sponsored the discussion entitled “The Affairs of Race in America: A Conversation in Black and White.”
Currently, Banks-Young is a preventive health trainer and poet and Jefferson-Westerinen is a businesswoman. The women held a dialogue with the audience about how their histories have become banded together due to their common ancestry. Jefferson-Westerinen is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, and Banks-Young is a descendant of Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.
Banks-Young led the dialogue by telling the audience to close their eyes and travel back in time with her. This interaction made the audience feel as if they are part of the story.
A wide variety of people were present: black and white, young and old, male and female. There was also a nervous excitement in the room. Everyone was ready to listen to the amazing story of how these women’s histories collided — suddenly revealing how they are descendants of Jefferson and Hemings. Essentially, they are distant cousins.
Banks-Young spoke about the frightening story of a slave that was powerful and enraging. The story told of a black woman, who was kidnapped from her West African village, and how it led to the birth of Sally Hemings, who eventually became Jefferson’s concubine.
Thousands of people claim to be offspring of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, but truly, there are only about 1000 to this day. The way both women originally found out they were related was through a DNA test of Jefferson-Westerinen’s brother compared to Thomas Jefferson’s DNA. All 19 chromosomes matched. This led to her beginning to try to find her other relatives. Eventually, Jefferson-Westerinen met Banks-Young on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and since then they have been giving talks all over the country about race in America.
Throughout the entire story these women were telling, it seemed as if they were sisters who had known each other their entire lives. When Banks-Young and Jefferson-Westerinen reached the end of their story, they summed up by reiterating the idea of love and unity in every racial community. Banks-Young later related herself to a “caterpillar, finding a cocoon of God’s love … giving me wings, being able to find family and share love.”
Many students felt enlightened and hopeful for the future of race relations in America.
“It made me feel happy — it was a feel-good experience,” said Regina Wilson, a freshman with an undeclared major.
Freshman Aisha Machunga-Sambo, Electrical Engineering major, shared the same sentiments of an “encouraged unity.”
Many people were excited to ask questions about how to trace their roots to find their genealogy. Others wanted to simply offer words of encouragement and congratulations on the tremendous work these women are doing by “opening the doors of communication.”
Currently, these women are on a tour of several college campuses and have started an organization called The Sally Hemings Foundation. Their next project is to get a petition signed to build a museum dedicated to Sally Hemings.
Overall, the event revealed faults of one of our “founding fathers,” but it also showed how blacks and whites can share a common history and love with each other simply because we are all human beings.
To find out more information about the history of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, check out www.pbs.org/wghh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson.