KARYN TRAUT, a playwright and adjunct assistant professor of social medicine in her late fifties with long, naturally graying hair pulled back in a single braid. She wears round, oversized eyeglasses, loose fitting clothes, and a long flowing scarf.

THOMAS TRAUT, professor of biochemistry and husband of Karyn Traut for 38 years. He, too, is in his late fifties, and he has graying hair, a mustache, and oversized eyeglasses.

[Curtain up.]

ACT I: The Media and the DNA Test

Time: November 1998

Karyn Traut’s day begins as usual. She gets up, pours herself a cup of coffee, and sits down at a small kitchen table. Then she starts jotting down notes on a notepad, brainstorming a character for a play. Her husband, Thomas Traut, walks in carrying the newspaper, sits down at the table across from his wife, and begins reading.

Take a look at this would you,” Thomas says as he turns the paper around and places it in front of his wife.

Karyn can’t believe her eyes. There in black and white is the headline “DNA Test Pinpoints Jefferson Offspring. President Fathered Child with Slave Hemings.” The article goes on to tell about a DNA test and, unknown to Karyn at the time, erroneously reports that blood for the test was extracted from living descendents of Jefferson’s brother. It correctly reports that blood was also extracted from male descendents of Sally Hemings’ last child, Eston, as well as from a group of blacks whom many think also descended from Jefferson. (This last group — the Woodsons — is ruled out.)

This story makes it sound like they’ve proven Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’ children,” Karyn says. “There’s not even a mention here of his brother Randolph as the possible father.”

A week later, Karyn is further frustrated when she reads the original article in the journal Nature, which had been scooped by the American press. Here, it states that blood was actually drawn from descendents of Thomas Jefferson’s uncle, Field Jefferson, but again, doesn’t even mention Randolph —  in fact, leaves him off the family tree.

ACT II: Just the Facts, Ma’am

Time: Flashback to the 1970s

Karyn, living in California, receives Fawn Brodie’s book Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History from the Book-of-the-Month club, sits down on her sofa, and begins reading. She soon becomes intrigued with the character of Tom Hemings, whom Brodie portrays in her book as the illegitimate son conceived in France by Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.

Here is my character for a play,” Karyn thinks. “A son born to the most compelling American founding father, who would under a completely free country have been an obvious candidate for president, but because of slavery and miscegenation, could only at best pass into oblivion.”

Still mulling over a play, Karyn moves with her husband and sons to Chapel Hill. She seeks out some of her neighbors, many of whom are history professors. They tell her no one in the historical community believes the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, so she decides to do some research of her own. Sitting outside on a sunny day, she starts reading through Brodie’s footnotes and appendages.

Karyn is stunned. “There’s no evidence that the historical character I wanted to center my play on ever existed at all,” she says. “There’s no record of such a birth in the Monticello (the Jefferson family homeplace) ledger, and Madison Hemings, Sally’s second to last child, claims Tom Hemings died at the age of two.” It seems to Karyn that Fawn Brodie has thrown out the pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit her model, and where she leaves holes, she fills in with conjecture, using often the word “innuendo” to defend her position.

Suddenly, Karyn has no play. She takes six months off from her day job scoring writing samples from state competency exams and begins research on Thomas Jefferson. After all, she wants her play to be historically accurate.

Time: Seven years later. Traut is still doing research.

I’m beginning to realize I could spend my life researching Jefferson,” Traut says.

What she finds out is “a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Jefferson was a slave owner and a racist,” she says. “But he was also a visionary man in so many ways, even as a slave owner because in his time it was radical to consider slaves as human beings. While he spent his life trying to abolish slavery, he still believed in separation of the races.”

As for the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, Karyn finds no documents or firsthand accounts acknowledging the existence of such a child — only the coincidence of residency linking Jefferson to the paternity of the other children of Sally Hemings. She wonders, “Even if a child were conceived in France, most men in France were white, including the servants, so why would a white child born to Sally necessarily be linked with Jefferson?”

She also notes that Hemings did not conceive a child every time Jefferson was in residence and that there was no child born to Hemings after Jefferson’s retirement (in which he permanently moved back to Monticello) when Hemings was only in her mid-thirties.

And why,” Traut asks, “would Jefferson have fathered children into both slavery, which he found abominable, and African descent, which he found inferior?”

But if not Thomas Jefferson, then who?

She hits the books again and finds out that Thomas Jefferson had a brother — Randolph Jefferson, who was 12 years his junior. “Until now, I hadn’t realized Jefferson had a brother,” Traut says.

Karyn learns of Randolph while reading a book titled Thomas Jefferson and Music, in which a reference is made to his brother. Apparently Jefferson paid for Randolph’s violin lessons, but Randolph used his skill only for “country fiddling” with the servants. Traut also finds out that Randolph had been married twice, unlike his older brother who promised his wife on her deathbed never to remarry. “Hmmmm,” Karyn says. “I’m starting to see Randolph as possibly a rebel to his older more famous and authoritative brother. By ‘dancing with the servants,’ Randolph seemed to be living with the times rather than trying to change them as was Thomas Jefferson.”

Further digging reveals a few more facts in favor of Randolph as father of Sally Hemings’ children, including that Randolph Jefferson lived 20 miles from Monticello, within easy visiting distance.

Ah ha,” Karyn thinks. “I have an original answer to an historical question. There were two Mr. Jeffersons.”

Time: 1988

Karyn finally feels capable of writing an historically accurate play. The result is Saturday’s Children. The premise of the play is a conversation among three characters, two of whom try to talk the third, an African American actor, into playing Thomas Jefferson in a performance-art project. In the play, the actors battle out Jefferson’s attributes by reading aloud passages from his writings. “The point is that while we may not always agree with or like everything about Thomas Jefferson’s character, he is a person enormously worth looking at — he has a lot to give us,” Karyn says.

ACT III: The Scholars Commission

Time: 1998 to the present

When the DNA evidence comes out in the press as conclusive proof of Thomas Jefferson’s parentage, Karyn’s Jefferson research isn’t right at the top of her brain. But of course she remembers the brother.

She writes a letter to the Raleigh News & Observer, which finds its way to Herbert Barger, a Jefferson family historian. He, too, has come to the conclusion that Randolph is the more likely father of Hemings’ children. He points out that all of Hemings’ children conceived in the U.S. appear to have been conceived between Randolph’s two marriages and that, at the time, there were several potential Jeffersons in and around Monticello, including Randolph’s sons.

On January 8, 1999, the journal Science prints an article titled, “Which Jefferson was the Father?” bringing forth Barger’s argument that the most likely father of Eston Hemings (Sally Hemings’ youngest son) is not Thomas Jefferson, who was 65 at the time Eston was conceived, but rather Jefferson’s brother Randolph, 12 years his junior. The authors also mention that Barger helped locate living members of the Jefferson family and persuaded them to donate blood to a DNA study.

Coincidentally, Thomas Traut’s journal club brings up this article in their weekly meeting. Having seen his wife work through the question of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison for over a decade, he’s become interested in the topic himself. He rushes home to show the article to Karyn.

As a scientist, Thomas Traut explains the DNA evidence to Karyn, and subsequently to other Thomas Jefferson scholars. Since no DNA was available from Thomas Jefferson, scientists used blood extracted from descendents of his paternal uncle, Field Jefferson. That means Thomas Jefferson was only one of about two dozen male descendents believed to carry the Jefferson family Y chromosome, placing Thomas and Randolph as equally likely suspects.

Thomas Traut’s DNA knowledge and interest on the subject lands him a spot on the Scholars Commission on the The Jefferson-Hemings Matter, formed by a group of Jefferson scholars shortly after the 1998 DNA testing. While a major contributor to the group, Karyn does not make the commission, which consists solely of full professors.

The scholars collaborate on the topic for over a year and find additional material including a previously published study listing Randolph Jefferson as the father of “colored” children by his own slaves. They unanimously agree that the allegation of whether Thomas Jefferson is the father of Sally Hemings’ youngest child is by no means proven. Not everyone agrees, though, on the likelihood of whether it was in Thomas Jefferson’s nature to have an affair with a servant. In his dissenting opinion, Paul Rahe, professor of history at the University of Tulsa, writes, “Despite the distaste that he expressed for the propensity of slaveholders and their relatives to abuse their power, Jefferson either engaged in such abuse himself or tolerated it on the part of one or more members of his extended family.”

Karyn argues that while Thomas Jefferson was born into slavery, he did not create it. As he writes in Notes on Virginia, “In the very first session held under the Republican government (of Virginia), the assembly passed a law for the perpetual prohibition of the importation of slaves.” This, he felt, would stop the increase of “this great political and moral evil, while the minds of our citizens may be ripening for a complete emancipation of human nature.”

So did Thomas Jefferson have one or more children by his slaves?

I believe he did not,” Traut says. “But I also don’t want anybody to think I’m denying the horrors of slavery.”

Catherine House was formerly a staff contributor for Endeavors.

Karyn Traut participates in the Carolina Speakers program.