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Descendants of enslaved people gather at Monticello to mark Juneteenth

Six members of the Reaves family stand outside Monticello during a Juneteenth celebration.
Six members of the Reaves family — Barbara Reaves (left), Clinton Reaves Burke, Merwyn Reaves, Robin Reaves Burke, Teri Reaves and Steven Burke — stand outside Monticello during a Juneteenth celebration on Saturday in Albemarle County. (Photos: Roberta Oster/VPM News)

More than 1,000 people — including 400 descendants of enslaved people connected to the estate's history — gathered at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Albemarle County for Juneteenth events this weekend. 

“Ascendant: The Power of Descendant Communities to Shape Our Stories, Places and Future” featured speakers including filmmaker Ava DuVernay, The Atlantic writer Clint Smith, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, and jazz musician and educator Wynton Marsalis, who discussed the importance of descendant voices and communities in the telling of American history. 

Merwyn Reaves, a grandfather and descendant of a family connected to Monticello, was among those who traveled to Central Virginia for the Saturday event. The Ashburn resident was joined by his wife, two daughters, grandson and son-in-law at the Juneteenth commemoration. 

“It took us a while as a family to discover that we were in fact descendants of Mary Hemings, who is the older sister of Sally,” he said. “The difficulty for us was finding the records, because my descendants were treated as property. So, many family names were not carried forward … and the records were very difficult to find.” 

Reaves is an eighth-generation descendant of Mary Hemings, the older sister of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson who fathered at least six of her children. Like Sally, Mary Hemings was born into slavery. She was leased out to a white merchant named Thomas Bell, who eventually purchased her freedom. Mary had two children by Bell who are the Reaves’ family ancestors. 

Reaves said he spent 20 years tracing his family history back to Monticello and discovered that “[t]he original root of our tree is Elizabeth Hemings, who was the property of Thomas Jefferson's wife.” 

Jefferson owned more than 600 enslaved people during his lifetime, the most of any U.S. president.  

“We are the sole survivors of our family name, so [my grandson Clinton] is the carry-on of the family tree and the family blood,” Reaves said, standing with his family in front of the entrance to the 5,000-acre Monticello plantation. 

When 16-year-old Clinton was asked if he was going to teach that history to the next generation, he smiled and said, “I have to.” 

Clinton’s mother, Robin Reaves Burke, said, “This was our first ascendant gathering, and it was mind blowing. It was unbelievable for us, because we come from such a small family, and it was overwhelming to meet so many people that you knew you had family ties with.” 

When she visited the rededicated Burial Ground for Enslaved People at Monticello, Reaves Burke said, “I could feel my ancestors there. I looked up at the stars and wondered, ‘Were these the stars that our ancestors looked up at with hopes and dreams for us?’ I am sure they were happy that their wildest dreams came true.” 

When her father started to research their family history, Reaves Burke said, she “did a 180-degree career change,” leaving a corporate job to become executive director of the Loudoun Freedom Center, an organization dedicated to historic preservation in Loudoun County.  

She also is vice president of the local branch of the NAACP and advocates for legislation in the Virginia General Assembly. Recently, Reaves Burke worked to help pass HB1980 last year, which established the “Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program.” The initiative, beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, gives college scholarships to descendants of formerly enslaved people who built five major universities in Virginia. 

“This is now my life’s work,” Reaves Burke said.