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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. Like many Americans, Karen Hughes White knew little more about Thomas Jefferson than schoolbook phrases - he was the third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

But her interest was piqued last summer when researchers discovered that Thomas Jefferson had owned her great-great-great-grandfather, a plantation gardener named Wormley Hughes.

White, 43, an amateur genealogist, had traced her family several generations back, and her quest had revealed ancestors in the Charlottesville area. But while she lives only an hour away from Jefferson's home of Monticello, she had never visited it.

Bringing back history

When she and 13 family members were invited by the researchers on a private tour of Monticello last summer, "it brought back a history that had been omitted from us," White said.

The researchers have spent three years trying to piece together the stories of 200 of Jefferson's slaves by tracking down and interviewing their descendants. "We wanted to shed light back into the shadows of slavery and give voice to those whose lives and achievements went unrecorded," said Lucia Stanton, Monticello's senior research historian, who began the project in 1993.

The research is a dramatic shift for Monticello, where little more than a decade ago, tour guides made only passing mention of slavery or the lives of the 130 slaves Jefferson owned when he died in 1826.

The Monticello research is part of a trend across the South, where white and black historians and genealogists are retracing slaves' stories.

Not far from Monticello, researchers at President James Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland home have begun recording the stories of black residents who trace their kin to the tobacco plantation once owned by Monroe, the fifth president, who had 30 to 40 slaves.

Edward Ball, a white descendant of Charleston, S.C., rice planters, has spent several years finding and forming friendships with descendants of slaves owned by his ancestors on more than a dozen plantations. Ball, a former writer for the Village Voice, is writing a book on his encounters and the history of former Ball slave families.

"I regard the plantations as a bit of unfinished business," said Ball, 38, who divides his time between New York and Charleston. "There has never been a great deal of discussion between white people and black people about the tragedy of early America, and I think that the time is now right."

Jefferson's slaves

The researchers engaged in this kind of historical detective work spend hours in dusty archives, old courthouses and church basements looking for a surname, marriage license or slave bill of sale that can provide a precious link in the historical chain.

For the Monticello research, Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright have asked slaves' descendants for family histories - stories passed through generations.

Several themes have begun to emerge: that the slaves of Thomas Jefferson and their children valued education, music, religion and public service, as well as family. There are many examples of former slaves' becoming ministers, teachers or volunteers on the underground railroad, which helped slaves escape to the North and Canada.

One descendant of Jefferson's slaves, Frederick Madison Roberts, became the first black elected state representative in California in 1918.

"From Jefferson's records we have ideas and understandings about slaves' working lives," Swann-Wright said. "From the descendants and from their own words, we also are beginning to understand their values."

Jefferson's relationship with the slave Sally Hemings figures prominently in the research. Although many Jefferson historians have expressed skepticism about a liaison, oral tradition among Hemings' descendants supports the assertion that Jefferson fathered a number of children with her after his wife, Martha, died.

John Q. Taylor King, the 75-year-old chancellor and president emeritus of Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, recalled for researchers that when he was about 6, an elderly aunt from Memphis told him he was descended from Jefferson.

King said he was the great-great-grandson of Thomas C. Woodson, who, according to family oral history, was the first son of Jefferson and Hemings. Woodson's name does not appear in Jefferson's records, but his descendants, who now hold regular reunions, say that at the age of 12, Thomas C. Woodson was secretly ushered from Monticello after rumors of a Jefferson-Hemings liaison surfaced. The boy took the surname of the family with whom he was sent to live.

Stanton, who has been skeptical of the Hemings story, said that after hearing such oral histories, her views are in "constant flux." But she emphasized that she was not trying to prove or disprove the story.

White, who works in a courthouse records office in Fauquier County in northern Virginia and began work on a family genealogy several years ago, now knows that Wormley Hughes' son and grandson became preachers.

"I started with the goal of showing people the positive past and strength of our ancestors," she said. "Today, to know that a dream of mine or vision of mine is being fulfilled, it's like a dream come true."

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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