ORANGE, Va. —
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 believe it, too.
Finding their roots
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 probing 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 into 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’ 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’ 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 their 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 ancestor 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 DNA-testing 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 likely 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.”
A decade 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, Virginia, 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 great-grandmother 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.
“At least we’re somebody”
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 we’re 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.
A gray area
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 become 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,” said Nelson. “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.”
Restoring a legacy
A few 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 ancestors — 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 great-great 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.
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,” said one. “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.