‘You’re a Madi­son’

Bet­tye Kearse’s fam­ily lore is that they are de­scended from a Found­ing Fa­ther and pres­i­dent. Now, she’s try­ing to prove that link with DNA.


Pres­i­den­tial DNA link or not, a scion of slaves pur­sues a fam­ily saga.

In her mind’s eye, Bet­tye Kearse could see her an­ces­tor walk­ing the worn path that led from the big house to the slave quar­ters.

She thought of that path each time she pulled up the long, wind­ing drive­way lead­ing to Montpelier, the ru­ral Vir­ginia plan­ta­tion that was once home to Pres­i­dent James Madi­son.

“The first time I came here was in 1992, and the mo­ment I ac­tu­ally got on the grounds I felt I be­longed,” said Kearse, a re­tired pe­di­a­tri­cian who lives in the Bos­ton area.

As an African Amer­i­can de­scen­dant of slaves, her feel­ings about the Found­ing Fa­ther, as a man and a historical fig­ure, are de­cid­edly am­biva­lent. But she has come to love his home. From the time she was a child, her mother had told her the fam­ily’s known his­tory be­gan on Madi­son’s prop­erty — and that they were, in fact, de­scen­dants of the pres­i­dent and an en­slaved cook named Coreen. Dur­ing each of her vis­its to Montpelier, Kearse felt the weight of her mother’s daunt­ing re­quest that she carry their story through oral his­tory, fol­low­ing in the West African tra­di­tion of gri­ots, or sto­ry­tellers.

Kearse’s most re­cent visit to Madi­son’s plan­ta­tion promised to be even more emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing than usual: Her fam­ily’s long-held nar­ra­tive would con­verge with mod­ern sci­ence, giv­ing her the chance to con­firm that she, an African Amer­i­can woman, is re­lated to a pres­i­dent. For more than a decade, she had searched for a Madi­son de­scen­dant to whom she could com­pare her DNA, and fi­nally it was hap­pen­ing.

The air was crisp as Kearse, a slim 74-year-old woman with red­dish-brown hair and mocha-col­ored skin, en­tered the plan­ta­tion’s con­fer­ence cen­ter, where both she and an es­tab­lished white rel­a­tive of James Madi­son would fill two test tubes with saliva. In her 25 years of vis­it­ing Montpelier, Kearse had al­ways felt wel­comed by the staff, even though her fam­ily had no doc­u­ments di­rectly ty­ing them to the plan­ta­tion or the Found­ing Fa­ther.

What Kearse did have was her story, and a small box passed on from her late mother, Ruby Laura Madi­son Wil­son, filled with old land deeds, fam­ily birth cer­tifi­cates and a copy of an 1860 slave cen­sus — a bare-bones

doc­u­ment that listed en­slaved peo­ple only by ba­sic de­mo­graphic data but onto which her mother had hand­writ­ten the names and birth years of their an­ces­tors.

Kearse was look­ing to add to the box when she first vis­ited the plan­ta­tion. Staff ge­neal­o­gists helped her search for archival in­for­ma­tion about her an­ces­tors, but the trail quickly went cold. Madi­son’s step­son, a gam­bler and al­co­holic, sold or burned many of his pa­pers af­ter the pres­i­dent’s death.

Af­ter the ge­netic sam­ples were boxed up to send for anal­y­sis by An­ces­try, the com­mer­cial ge­netic DNA ser­vice, a Montpelier staff mem­ber asked Kearse what it would mean for her if the test showed she was re­lated to the white Madi­son de­scen­dant.

“Ev­ery­thing and noth­ing,” Kearse said softly.

Noth­ing, be­cause: “My fam­ily grew up with the story and with the pride. That’s not go­ing to change.”

Ev­ery­thing, be­cause: She could fi­nally get the rest of the world to be­lieve it, too.

The rise of the con­sumer ge­netic-test­ing in­dus­try — pop­u­lar­ized by com­pa­nies such as An­ces­try.com and 23andMe — has been em­braced by African Amer­i­cans, hope­ful that these sim­ple saliva tests can hold clues to their elu­sive fam­ily his­to­ries.

It was an African Amer­i­can writer, Alex Ha­ley, who in the mid-1970s in­spired a na­tion­wide ob­ses­sion with ge­neal­ogy that con­tin­ues to this day. His re­search into his own back­ground turned into “Roots,” his best-sell­ing chron­i­cle of a black fam­ily over seven gen­er­a­tions, later a smash-hit TV minis­eries.

Yet for African Amer­i­cans who threw them­selves into what is said to be one of the na­tion’s most pop­u­lar hob­bies, painful hur­dles arose: The cruel in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery had blasted wide gaps in their trace­able fam­ily trees, many of their an­ces­tors hav­ing lived lives barely recorded by ba­sic doc­u­men­ta­tion. Even Ha­ley con­ceded that much was sim­ply un­know­able about his fam­ily and that his book could at best be considered historical fic­tion.

In 2000, Har­vard pro­fes­sor Henry Louis Gates Jr., suf­fer­ing from a “se­vere case of ‘Roots’ envy,” be­came de­ter­mined to learn where his fam­ily came from be­fore the Mid­dle Pas­sage. He asked sev­eral ge­neti­cists to an­a­lyze his DNA, and they de­ter­mined his ge­netic her­itage was 50 per­cent Euro­pean and 50 per­cent African. Since 2012, he has hosted “Find­ing Your Roots,” a PBS show that walks celebri­ties through their fam­ily trees us­ing DNA test­ing as well as tra­di­tional re­search; its pop­u­lar­ity has sparked an­other gen­er­a­tion’s de­sire to dig into their fam­ily’s sto­ries.

Spurred on by her mother’s wishes, Bet­tye Kearse took up her ge­nealog­i­cal mis­sion with yet an­other source of in­spi­ra­tion: the haunt­ing par­al­lels of her fam­ily’s oral his­tory to the one fa­mously passed down by Sally Hem­ings’s de­scen­dants.

Thomas Jef­fer­son owned Hem­ings, who was black, and the Hem­ings fam­ily’s oral his­tory had long held that the third pres­i­dent was their an­ces­tor, bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther to Sally Hem­ings’s chil­dren. Doc­u­men­tary his­tory also placed Jef­fer­son and Hem­ings to­gether dur­ing the pe­riod when her chil­dren were con­ceived. Yet con­sen­sus did not gel that he in­deed was their fa­ther un­til a 1998 DNA test showed a match be­tween the Jef­fer­son male line and a male Hem­ings de­scen­dant.

Kearse had started work­ing on a manuscript about her fam­ily his­tory that drew some in­ter­est from agents and pub­lish­ers. But one ad­vised her that she would have a bet­ter shot at get­ting a book deal if she, too, could find ge­netic proof.

In 2004, she con­tacted Bruce Jack­son, a foren­sic DNA sci­en­tist with po­si­tions at MassBay Com­mu­nity Col­lege and Bos­ton Univer­sity. He had launched a re­search pro­gram, called “The Roots Project,” to help African Amer­i­cans trace their ge­netic his­to­ries, and he main­tained an in­de­pen­dent lab where he and his stu­dents did their own DNA test­ing and anal­y­sis. He made a point of re­ject­ing the high prices charged by pri­vate labs for such ser­vices and was skep­ti­cal of how those com­pa­nies in­tended to use the ge­netic data of its cus­tomers.

Jack­son also had a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism about many of the clients who ap­proached him in hopes of track­ing fa­mous an­ces­tors, said Jamie Wil­son, a sci­en­tific re­search staff mem­ber at Tufts Med­i­cal Cen­ter, who worked on the Roots Project. But he warmed to Kearse.

She was a woman of sci­ence, a physi­cian who had stud­ied ge­net­ics in col­lege. And she came with a box of an­ces­tral pa­pers that were es­pe­cially com­pelling for Jack­son. Ac­cord­ing to Kearse’s story, her fore­mother Coreen gave birth to a son, and that son had a son, and so on — an un­bro­ken line of male de­scent, from Madi­son on through Kearse’s gen­er­a­tion. That kind of fam­ily tree was ideal for work­ing with one of the most re­li­able DNA tests of the era, which tested for the chro­mo­some that fa­thers pass to their sons, un­changed across gen­er­a­tions.

“All we’re try­ing to do is match Bet­tye to who­ever she should be matched to, whether it’s the pres­i­dent, or the pres­i­dent’s gar­dener,” Jack­son, who died in 2016, told a Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter in 2008, one of sev­eral in­ter­views he gave to try to find a white Madi­son de­scen­dant to turn over their DNA.

Jack­son de­cided to first test three of Kearse’s male cousins to de­ter­mine whether the di­rect-de­scen­dant men in her fam­ily car­ried James Madi­son’s Y-chro­mo­some.

But Jack­son’s team ran into a road­block when none of the liv­ing white male Madis­ons would pub­licly sub­mit to a DNA test. The so­ci­ety of Madi­son de­scen­dants re­ferred Jack­son and Kearse to a com­mer­cial DNAtest­ing web­site called Fam­ily Tree DNA that they said con­tained the ge­netic records of Madi­son rel­a­tives, Wil­son re­called. But Jack­son was con­cerned about re­ly­ing on the work of an­other lab.

In their search, Jack­son and Wil­son hired a ge­neal­o­gist in Eng­land, where the Madi­son fam­ily orig­i­nated, to hunt for dis­tant cousins. But they reached a dead end there, too, Wil­son said.

An­a­lyz­ing the Y-chro­mo­somes of Kearse’s male cousins, Wil­son found mark­ers of a typ­i­cally West African gene clus­ter, mean­ing that their pa­tri­ar­chal male an­ces­tor was prob­a­bly from that con­ti­nent. Still, they had no white male Madis­ons to whom they could com­pare re­sults.

“There have been cases of Euro­pean men hav­ing a West African hap­logroup,” Wil­son said, re­fer­ring to the kind of gene clus­ter they found. “It is rare. It would be an anom­aly, but not im­pos­si­ble.”

Adecade later, DNA test­ing had evolved to in­clude more in­for­ma­tion about ma­ter­nal ge­netic data — and Kearse’s friends at Montpelier were giv­ing her a chance to try again.

The woman who had agreed to com­pare her DNA to Kearse’s was Conny Graft, a his­tory mu­seum pro­fes­sional who lives in Wil­liams­burg, Va., and had once served on an ad­vi­sory board at Montpelier. Graft, a 62-year-old with blond hair and deep dim­ples, re­mem­bers feel­ing giddy as she drove up to Montpelier to sub­mit her saliva for DNA test­ing.

“You won’t be­lieve what I’m about to do,” she told her daugh­ter ex­cit­edly over the phone.

Graft al­most couldn’t be­lieve it her­self. Her mother had al­ways spo­ken with pride about their doc­u­mented con­nec­tion to James Madi­son. Graft’s great­grand­mother Emma Cas­san­dra Riely Ma­con had penned a mem­oir, “Rem­i­nis­cences of the Civil War,” that in­cluded the fam­ily’s ge­neal­ogy, show­ing her husband’s link to the Found­ing Fa­ther through Madi­son’s youngest sis­ter, Sarah Catlett Madi­son.

Al­though her mother had joined the of­fi­cial Madi­son fam­ily as­so­ci­a­tion, Graft her­self had never made much of the ge­nealog­i­cal con­nec­tion. Through her work at Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg and var­i­ous mu­se­ums, she had come to un­der­stand that his­tory could be “much more com­pli­cated” than the fam­ily ties her mother felt to one of the au­thors of the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Graft and Kearse dis­cussed their com­plex feel­ings about Amer­i­can his­tory over cof­fee, then went into the ladies’ room to spit in the vials. They were joined by Leon­tyne Peck and Mary Alexan­der, de­scen­dants of slaves who have also be­come in­volved with Montpelier and were ea­ger to see what a DNA test could tell them.

Kearse had al­ready grap­pled with the com­pli­cated dy­nam­ics of her own mother’s sense of honor in “be­ing a Madi­son.”

To Kearse’s mind, the fourth pres­i­dent had done lit­tle to chal­lenge slav­ery, ei­ther in the way he helped craft the na­tion’s found­ing doc­u­ments or in how he lived his own life and ran his own plan­ta­tion. She be­lieved he was fully com­plicit in the de­hu­man­iza­tion of African Amer­i­cans.

Once, she called Ruby on the phone. “Mother,” she said, “you know he is our an­ces­tor be­cause of some­thing hor­ri­ble.”

Ruby replied: “Well, at least they were some­body.”

Kearse re­mem­bers sink­ing to the floor in dis­be­lief.

Slave own­ers treated en­slaved women as prop­erty. Some vi­o­lated the women sex­u­ally, and the women bore their chil­dren. Today, the av­er­age African Amer­i­can genome is nearly a quar­ter Euro­pean, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Hu­man Ge­net­ics study. Graft un­der­stood all of this. “This would not be a stretch to find that there are African Amer­i­cans with Madi­son blood,” she said to Kearse. Graft also knew that bring­ing this kind of blood re­la­tion­ship to light would make some peo­ple deeply un­com­fort­able, in­clud­ing mem­bers of her fam­ily.

What would Nana think if she could see me here, Graft won­dered. “Grow­ing up, I could not un­der­stand how some­one I loved so much and who was so lov­ing to me could be so prej­u­diced,” she said. “She was a racist.”

A few weeks later the DNA test re­sults came back. Graft re­ceived an email and went to the web­site to see her re­sults. Kearse also got an alert say­ing her re­sults were ready.

There were no big sur­prises for ei­ther of them in what their DNA told them about their eth­nic an­ces­try.

Graft’s showed that nearly two-thirds of her an­ces­try was de­rived from the Bri­tish Isles, with about 12 per­cent each com­ing from Western Europe and the Ibe­rian penin­sula.

Kearse’s was nearly two-thirds de­rived from the African con­ti­nent — mostly the re­gions of Benin, Togo and Mali, as well as the Bantu peo­ple of south­east­ern Africa, among other eth­nic groups. About one-third of her an­ces­try could be traced to Europe, mostly the Bri­tish Isles.

Quickly, the women then granted each other per­mis­sion to view the data in their An­ces­try.com ac­counts. The web­site can take a client’s DNA re­sults and match them against those of other clients to ex­trap­o­late an as­ton­ish­ing new kind of fam­ily tree — a di­a­gram of likely blood rel­a­tives, as de­ter­mined by com­mon mark­ers in their ge­netic ma­te­rial.

It is this kind of fea­ture, pop­u­lar­ized by the com­mer­cial an­ces­tral-DNA in­dus­try, that has helped con­nect adoptees with their bi­o­log­i­cal fam­i­lies and ge­neal­ogy en­thu­si­asts with dis­tant cousins, as Kearse and Graft were hop­ing to do. It has also, oc­ca­sion­ally, de­liv­ered jar­ring news — that a client has a half-sibling she never knew about, or that the fa­ther who raised her is not ac­tu­ally her fa­ther.

So Kearse and Graft ea­gerly checked out each other’s ge­netic fam­ily trees.

None of their branches in­ter­sected.

Kearse shrugged off the find­ings, as she had a decade ago when her cousins’ ge­netic test seemed to dis­count a Madi­son con­nec­tion. Graft sug­gested they take more tests and sub­mit them for a deeper ge­netic anal­y­sis. Nei­ther has yet fol­lowed up on that idea.

The lack of DNA cor­rob­o­ra­tion did not shake Kearse’s be­lief in her fam­ily his­tory. She never felt that she needed proof be­yond the words of her mother, grand­fa­ther and the an­ces­tors who passed the story down to them.

James Madi­son was a bach­e­lor un­til the age of 43 when he wed Dol­ley Payne Todd, a mar­riage that en­dured from 1794 un­til his death in 1836. They never had chil­dren to­gether, and some his­to­ri­ans have sug­gested he may have been in­fer­tile; Dol­ley, a widow, had borne a son from her pre­vi­ous mar­riage. Yet oth­ers, in­clud­ing the staff ge­neal­o­gists at Montpelier, say there is no de­fin­i­tive ev­i­dence that he could not have chil­dren.

The el­dest son of a wealthy Vir­ginia planter, Madi­son spent much of his life at Montpelier, the plan­ta­tion es­tab­lished by his grand­fa­ther, and even­tu­ally in­her­ited it from his fa­ther, along with more than 100 slaves. He was ini­tially am­biva­lent about the be­quest, writ­ing that he wished “to de­pend as lit­tle as pos­si­ble on the labour of slaves.” Yet he gen­er­ally “went about the busi­ness of slav­ery,” ac­cord­ing to Bar­ton Col­lege his­tory pro­fes­sor Jeff Broad­wa­ter’s “James Madi­son: A Son of Vir­ginia and a Founder of the Na­tion.”

In 1769, Madi­son went off to what is now Prince­ton Univer­sity, ac­com­pa­nied by an en­slaved man named Sawney. In 1787, he trav­eled to Philadel­phia for the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion with an en­slaved man named Bil­ley. When Madi­son as­sumed the pres­i­dency in 1809, he and Dol­ley brought slaves with them to the White House, in­clud­ing Paul Jen­nings, who later wrote a mem­oir about his time in bondage.

At the time of Madi­son’s death, he owned about 100 African Amer­i­cans, none of whom were freed at his death. In his will, Madi­son passed his es­tate on to his wife, ask­ing her not to sell any of their slaves with­out their con­sent. But Dol­ley quickly fell deeply into debt and sold off Montpelier and the peo­ple who la­bored there.

No doc­u­ments from that sale have ever sur­faced that would link the Madis­ons to Kearse’s an­ces­tors, which is why her DNA test was seen as po­ten­tially cru­cial data. In­stead, the test re­sults placed her among the many peo­ple butting up against the lim­its of the tech­nol­ogy.

DNA test­ing has not yet ruled her out as a Madi­son de­scen­dant, but it hasn’t con­firmed her as one ei­ther. Even if a test might some­day pro­vide her with a blood link to the Madi­son fam­ily, ques­tions would prob­a­bly re­main about whether that re­la­tion is a di­rect line to the pres­i­dent — or whether one of his broth­ers who sur­vived into adult­hood, or per­haps a cousin, fa­thered Coreen’s child.

Left in a gray area, Kearse is choos­ing for her­self what to be­lieve about her iden­tity. She had never ex­pected to ex­pe­ri­ence the kind of aha! dis­cov­ery de­picted in com­mer­cials for the re­tail DNA tests, such as the one where the man who al­ways thought he was Ger­man jokes about hav­ing to trade his leder­ho­sen for a Scot­tish kilt.

The same is true for many African Amer­i­cans, said Alon­dra Nel­son, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity and pres­i­dent of the So­cial Sci­ence Re­search Coun­cil. DNA tests have cen­tral to ex­plor­ing is­sues of race in Amer­ica, she ar­gues, but can in­volve a painful process of historical ex­ca­va­tion and dis­cov­ery.

“The ge­netic tests al­low the past to be closer to us [and] make it deeply per­sonal,” Nel­son said. “It makes it not ab­stract. It en­riches and en­livens the dis­course on the his­tory of racial slav­ery and its af­ter­ef­fects.”

A DNA test al­lowed Nel­son to dis­cover that she was re­lated to the Bamileke peo­ple of Cameroon. Some African Amer­i­cans have used these tests to find ge­netic rel­a­tives who may have been dis­placed gen­er­a­tions ago when en­slaved women were sold away from their chil­dren. Oth­ers look to DNA test­ing as a ve­hi­cle for what Nel­son calls “racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion projects.”

In 2004, an at­tor­ney named Dead­ria Farmer-Paell­mann en­tered DNA tests as ev­i­dence in a class-ac­tion repa­ra­tions law­suit against cor­po­ra­tions that built wealth off Amer­i­can slav­ery. The test re­sults were used to demon­strate that the plain­tiffs could trace their an­ces­try to Africa — but, as Nel­son de­scribed in her book, “The So­cial Life of DNA,” they failed to pro­vide the level of de­tail that the court re­quired about who pre­cisely was harmed by the spe­cific com­pa­nies.

“We as­sign more cer­tainty to the tests than sta­tis­ti­cal ge­netic sci­ence can ever of­fer us,” said Nel­son, who calls such tests “prob­a­bilis­tic” at best.

“There’s so much about the past that can never be known. While DNA can of­fer a lit­tle bit more in­for­ma­tion, it can’t fill in for any of us [things like] in­ten­tion, cul­ture, pas­sion, dis­pas­sion,” Nel­son said. “There’s go­ing to be for all of this . . . a la­cuna, and filling it is un­likely given how com­pli­cated the past is.”

Afew weeks af­ter Kearse learned her DNA re­sults did not of­fer a match with Graft, she flew to Austin for a Madi­son fam­ily re­union with her African Amer­i­can rel­a­tives. The theme of the event was a trib­ute to their an­ces­tors: “I am be­cause you were and it is be­cause of you that I am.”

More than 60 peo­ple had trav­eled from all over the coun­try — all linked by two shared an­ces­be­come tors — Emanuel and Bet­sey Madi­son. Among them were some dis­tant cousins whose links to Kearse’s fam­ily had only re­cently been dis­cov­ered through an­ces­tral-DNA data­bases.

In 1834, two years be­fore James Madi­son died, Bet­sey was pur­chased in Ten­nessee as a “com­pan­ion” for Emanuel — the first doc­u­mented ref­er­ence to Kearse’s fore­fa­ther and fore­mother. In 1848, a slave owner named Jeptha Billings­ley brought Emanuel and Bet­sey to Cen­tral Texas. They ap­par­ently had the last name Madi­son be­fore eman­ci­pa­tion.

All that Kearse’s gen­er­a­tion knows about the cou­ple comes from the bill of sale and de­tails in Billings­ley’s will. Bet­sey was a “light mu­latto com­plex­ion Ne­gro woman,” born around 1815. Emanuel was “a Ne­gro man of dark com­plex­ion,” some­where be­tween six and 10 years Bet­sey’s se­nior. They had at least 11 chil­dren. Nine lived to adult­hood.

Af­ter walk­ing ceme­ter­ies in Austin to find the graves of their dis­tant rel­a­tives, the re­union at­ten­dees vis­ited a log cabin built in about 1863 by Kearse’s great­great-un­cle, Henry Green Madi­son, which now sits in a park on the east side of the city, with a marker from the Texas Historical Com­mis­sion. The next day, Kearse and her rel­a­tives gath­ered in an Em­bassy Suites ball­room to dis­cuss the fam­ily’s his­tory.

Her cousin Jimmy Madi­son shared historical doc­u­ments he had un­cov­ered show­ing that Billings­ley pur­chased their an­ces­tor Bet­sey for $500 in Novem­ber 1834. An­other cousin, Sean Har­ley, had be­friended a de­scen­dant of Billings­ley, and he fur­ther ex­plained the con­nec­tion be­tween the two fam­i­lies.

Har­ley said he has searched but can­not find ev­i­dence of Coreen’s ex­is­tence out­side of Kearse’s story, and he could lo­cate no doc­u­ments link­ing the fam­ily to Montpelier. As far as he and many in the fam­ily were con­cerned, their Madi­son fam­ily line can be traced back no fur­ther than Emanuel and Bet­sey.

But Har­ley had re­cently found doc­u­ments con­nect­ing the fam­ily to a likely an­ces­tor named Shadrack Madi­son — a for­mer slave, born in Vir­ginia, who had bought his own free­dom. Half a gen­er­a­tion older than Emanuel, he once be­longed to Billings­ley’s fa­ther, and ge­netic tests showed his de­scen­dants to be dis­tant cousins of Har­ley and Kearse’s rel­a­tives. But the pa­pers that would clearly de­lin­eate his place in the fam­ily line were de­stroyed in a court­house fire.

Fi­nally, it was Kearse’s turn to make a pre­sen­ta­tion. She briefly men­tioned the fruit­less DNA test at Montpelier but did not dwell on it, fo­cus­ing in­stead on Coreen’s story. She told her rel­a­tives that Coreen had been as­signed to work in the kitchen at Madi­son’s house.

“The fu­ture pres­i­dent saw her, thought she was beau­ti­ful, and im­posed his per­sonal at­ten­tions on her,” Kearse con­tin­ued with a nar­ra­tive flour­ish. “She be­came preg­nant and named her son Jim.” Kearse be­lieves Jim to be Emanuel’s fa­ther.

There was a bit of quiet mur­mur­ing as she spoke.

Some of her cousins viewed her pre­sen­ta­tion as lit­tle more than fam­ily folk­lore. “My par­ents never told me this story,” one said. “Where’s the proof? The doc­u­ments?” an­other cousin said later.

But as Kearse looked over her gath­ered rel­a­tives, she closed her remarks with her mother’s mantra: “Al­ways re­mem­ber — you’re a Madi­son. You come from a pres­i­dent and from African slaves.”

The words still felt as solid as any his­tory Kearse had ever known.

She also shared ex­cit­ing news from Montpelier, where a new ex­hi­bi­tion re­cently opened to tell the sto­ries of the men and women en­slaved there. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a large do­na­tion from fi­nancier David Ruben­stein, the plan­ta­tion house had been re­stored and the build­ings where en­slaved men and women lived and worked had been re-cre­ated. An ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig had also been launched on the site of the old slave quar­ters, un­cov­er­ing ar­ti­facts.

The peo­ple who over­see Montpelier have a cul­ture of wel­com­ing oral his­to­ries, which they see as a way to bridge the gaps for the eras for which they do not have much doc­u­men­tary his­tory of life at the plan­ta­tion.

“Un­til we have a rea­son not to honor it, we do,” said El­iz­a­beth Chew, Montpelier’s vice pres­i­dent for mu­seum pro­grams.

To that end, Coreen’s name has been in­cluded in the ex­hibit on slav­ery, painted on a wall along with the names of the hun­dred other peo­ple Madi­son owned. Kearse’s oral his­tory is now writ­ten into James Madi­son’s house.

“Al­ways re­mem­ber — you’re a Madi­son. You come from a pres­i­dent and from African slaves.” Bet­tye Kearse, re­lay­ing her mother’s mantra to rel­a­tives at a re­union



Bet­tye Kearse vis­its a cabin in Austin built by her great-great-un­cle Henry Green Madi­son. Ac­cord­ing to a story passed down by gen­er­a­tions, a slave cook named Coreen had a son fa­thered by James Madi­son.



FROM TOP: Bet­tye Kearse inside the cabin in Austin built by her great-great-un­cle and for­mer slave Henry Green Madi­son. Kearse hugs Hat­tie Hester, a fourth cousin, af­ter a suc­cess­ful search for an­ces­tors at an Austin ceme­tery. De­bra Jones at the grave marker of Ma­hala Strain, thought to be the first African Amer­i­can res­i­dent of Austin. From left, Mary Alexan­der, de­scended from Madi­son’s slave Paul Jen­nings; Kearse; Conny Graft, de­scended from Madi­son’s sis­ter; and Leon­tyne Peck gave saliva sam­ples for DNA test­ing at Montpelier. And the re­sults for Kearse and Graft.



Montpelier was the Vir­ginia home of James Madi­son, the na­tion’s fourth pres­i­dent, who is called the “Fa­ther of the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

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