Elizabeth Warren, Sally Hemings and DNA tests



Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren recently faced awkward interviews asking why she won't take a DNA test to determine whether her claim to have native American ancestry is legitimate.  A Massachusetts state paper, the Berkshire Eagle (a friendly which endorsed her) suggested she "screw up her courage and take the spit test" in a reference to DNA tests now widely available for $99 (and sometimes on sale for less).

Warren, in interviews on FOX News Sunday and with CNN's Chuck Todd, dodged the DNA test question by talking at length about her parents in an emotional pitch, claiming her mother had Indian blood, and said "I know who I am and no one is ever gonna take that away."  Senator Warren also asserts that her claim to native American blood had nothing to do with her career success, despite Harvard Law School listing Warren as a member of its minority group after the American Association of Law Schools directory described her as a "minority" from 1984 to 1995.

President Trump mocked Warren earlier, this past November, at a White House event honoring native Americans, jokingly referring to her as Pocahontas.  But Warren helped pick the scab on her running controversy with an impromptu appearance in mid-February at the National Congress of American Indians, reasserting her heritage claims based on her family's oral history, but acknowledging she is not a member of any tribe. This strategy to take the offense and dig in may have backfired. The CEO of TargetSmart, a data firm paid more than $1 million by the DNC in this election cycle, was quoted in the Boston Globe suggesting Warren apologize for her claim.  Cartoons on the internet abound now with Warren in Indian regalia.  

Cherokee records don't list Warren as a tribal member, and worse for her possible further political ambitions, genealogical records show her as descended from a Tennessee militia member, Jonathan Crawford, her great, great, great grandfather, who rounded up Cherokees in Georgia for Andrew Jackson's deadly "Trail of Tears."  

Senator Warren is not the first person to claim a dubious ethnic heritage.  Rachel Dolezal "passed" for black and wound up president of the NAACP's Spokane office until outed as white. She was ambushed by reporters and fled under questioning. Dolezal's white parents released pictures of her as a blonde child and denounced her fraud.  Dolezal resigned her NAACP post, was fired from her university teaching job, and lost her local newspaper column.  She had once sued a university for discriminating against her because she was white. In an interview in February 2017 with TheGuardian, Dolezal said she was feeding her family on food stamps, unable to find work, and facing homelessness. 

Earlier in our nation's history, long before the advent of the civil rights era, blacks of mixed blood frequently passed as whites-- it was a means to move up into society. But the advent of DNA testing provided a mechanism to authenticate dubious claims or prove them false. Thomas Jefferson's slave, Sally Hemings, had children who "passed" into white society.  Jefferson faced claims in his lifetime that he had fathered Sally Hemings' children.  His accuser, a scandal-monger and blackmailer named James Callender, described Sally (who was 3/4 white) as an "African Venus," and tried unsuccessfully, by spreading these rumors to sabotage Jefferson's re-election as President. 

DNA testing to determine whether Hemings' descendants had Jefferson blood was splashed onto front pages of US papers after a UK journal published a sensational headline that Jefferson fathered his slave's last child. The DNA could not finger Thomas Jefferson as father of any of Sally's light-skinned children, only some male in the Jefferson family (of which there were some twenty or more in Virginia, with eight near Monticello and nephews who lived on the plantation), a critical distinction lost in media coverage. But the headlines produced a spate of books, movies and revisionist histories claiming President Jefferson fathered Sally's children. Jefferson, if telling the truth that these accusations were slanderous, could have benefited from a mail-order DNA test. Monica Lewinsky certainly benefited from one, putting an end to slurs that she was a looney-tunes and "crazed stalker," and Bill Clinton was proven to have lied about their relationship.

Dr. Herbert Barger, the Jefferson family historian/genealogist discovered a Hemings grave in Leavenworth National Cemetery, which if exhumed, might provide more answers to the Jefferson/Hemings controversy. Barger said he won verbal consent from William Hemings' next of kin, only to have them renege when requisite forms were sent to them. Their reversal remains a mystery-- wouldn't they want DNA testing to provide more answers?  

What the UK journal and US media missed in reporting the 1998 DNA results was that for the Woodson family (who also claimed Jefferson as an ancestor), there was proven to be no connection to our third President. Like Warren (and CNN's Chuck Todd, who found out his grandmother was wrong about his family being related to Robert E.Lee), the Woodson family lore had assured them they were kin to Jefferson.  Some sadly still cling to that belief, again like Warren, refusing to give credence to DNA evidence.  

While touring Monticello years ago, a docent told our group that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' children and almost sneeringly, added, and this is the man who wrote "all men are created equal."  If the Hemings are so certain of their claim to Jefferson, and if Monticello is going to tell visitors that Jefferson fathered slave children, they'd want real evidence.  But if the court of public opinion has already embraced news headlines, and popular culture reinforces an unproven allegation, then a DNA test could rain on their parade.  For Elizabeth Warren, popular culture seems to be running in the other direction; she may have no choice but to submit to DNA testing.  Family lore has its place, but it can be rebutted by hard evidence.  No honest person should ever fear a DNA test.

Margaret Calhoun Hemenway is a 15-year veteran of Capitol Hill and a former White House appointee, serving at both DoD and NASA.

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