March 20, 2012

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By Kathryn Kopchik

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Genealogist Helen F.M. Leary will give the talk, "Jefferson and Genetics: The DNA Tests," Wednesday, March 28, at 7 p.m. in the Forum of the Elaine Langone Center. She will discuss the particulars of the Jefferson DNA tests with a focus on the interweaving of heritage, genetics and genealogy.

The talk, which is free and open to the public, is part of the Griot Institute for Africana Studies' spring lecture series, "Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: An American Origin Story, Interdisciplinarily Considered."

According to Leary, "Sally Hemings, her four surviving children, and their father Thomas Jefferson were real people, not cardboard figures one can tailor to suit personal dreams, ideals, or prejudices (or to accommodate mindless, leaf-clicking website interfaces)."

Leary will explore what she calls "a chain of credible evidence, presented honestly without trimming off uncomfortable bits that prevent its fitting preconceptions." Her discussion and examination of the evidence securely fastens Sally Hemings' children to their father Thomas Jefferson.

Leary served for 23 years as a trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists and as president from 1989-94 and 1998-99. With Thomas W. Jones, she authored the BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. She developed and coordinated the Professional Genealogy Track at Samford University Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research. Her extensive scholarly publications include the seminal National Genealogical Society Quarterly study, "Sally Hemings' Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence."

Although the assertion remains controversial centuries after it was originally made public, most contemporary historians concur that the preponderance of evidence suggests that Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings had seven children over the course of a 38-year involvement. In 1998, DNA tests supported the allegation, yet the story remains the subject of debate.

The Griot series, which seeks to examine various narratives about the Hemings/Jefferson affair in terms of their historical and contemporary resonances and significances, continues in April with a bus trip to Monticello on April 14 for a behind-the-scenes tour of Jefferson's home. Seating on the bus is limited and will be confirmed on a first-come, first-served basis. Bus departs Bucknell at 6 a.m. and will return to campus by 11 p.m. To reserve a seat, contact Rebecca Willoughby at

The series closes with the devised performance and original intermedia piece, "Sally Hemings: An Artistic Montage," April 18 at 7 p.m. in the Terrace Room of the Elaine Langone Center. Following the performance, playwright Sandra Seaton will reflect on her experiences imagining Sally Hemings dramatically during a question-and-answer period with audience members.

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