Ever since she was little, Massachusetts pediatrician Bettye Kearse was told by relatives, “Always remember you’re a Madison. You descend from an American president.” The family saying, passed down through generations, might not surprise anyone if Kearse weren’t an African American who believes she may be a descendant of the founding father and one of his slaves.
In a June 2007 article in The Washington Post, Kearse and Roots Project co-director Bruce Jackson were determined to pursue DNA testing to see whether the family lore is true. Jackson’s project aims to help African Americans discover their genetic history. The pair hoped to use DNA samples to compare Y chromosomes — identical through generations — from Kearse’s male cousins to a male relative of President James Madison. They’d discovered a Madison descendant and hoped the individual would consent to the testing. Jackson was optimistic, and Ann Thornton, a former president of the National Society of Madison Family Descendants, said the group was supportive.
But the relative declined to take the test. The society recommended that Kearse have samples of her DNA submitted to Family Tree DNA, a third-party DNA database that had the DNA of an anonymous Madison relative. Jackson argued that without direct access to the Madison sample, he would not be able to guarantee the test’s accuracy.
Kearse, now 68, says she bears no ill will toward the Madisons. “I understand,” she says, referencing the controversy following the discovery of descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. “They want to protect the president’s image. ... I don’t want to alienate anybody.”
Frederick Madison Smith, current president of the Madison descendents society, says Kearse is wrong about the society’s intent. The group refers all people who suspect they may be a descendent of President Madison to Family Tree DNA, he says. “We cannot force an individual to give DNA,” Smith says. “That’s very personal.”
A recent development has renewed Kearse’s cause. At an August family reunion in Austin, she and some cousins decided to share an e-mail folder, which they update with recent discoveries from reading microfiche or by visiting courthouses across the country.
One such find was a freed slave name Shadrack Madison. Born in Virginia in 1792, Shadrack later turned up in an 1830 census in Gibson County, Tenn. “What we also already knew is that my family came to Texas from Tennessee,” Kearse says. Right now, they’re focused on finding out whether Shadrack was connected to the Madisons who resided in Orange, Va.
Jackson and Kearse are still searching for a descendent in the United States or Europe, “We’ll find somebody eventually.”
Kearse is looking ahead. Last year, she revised the book she hopes to publish about her quest someday.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to give up. Why would I want to?” Kearse says. “When I learned about Shadrack ... it sparked some hope.”