African American Seeks to Prove A Genetic Link to James Madison

Roots Project co-director Bruce Jackson takes DNA from Gladys Marie Fry of Washington.
Roots Project co-director Bruce Jackson takes DNA from Gladys Marie Fry of Washington. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

MONTPELIER STATION, Va. -- Bettye Kearse stepped inside the mansion at Montpelier, former president James Madison's Virginia estate, to find the walls stripped bare. Rooms once opulently adorned have been deconstructed by archaeologists to reveal the slatted wooden frame that held together the home of one of the nation's premier architects.

Kearse, 64, a Massachusetts pediatrician, says she hopes to prove something the mansion's walls have so far kept hidden: that she, an African American, is a direct descendant of the man known as the father of the Constitution.

Kearse was one of dozens in attendance this weekend at the Montpelier Slave Descendants Reunion, where African Americans thought to have ties to the Orange County estate gathered to swap stories, learn about the home and submit DNA samples to help trace their roots. The estate is about a year away from completion of a $24 million restoration.

Madison had no children with his wife, Dolley, but Kearse says she has long believed her family's oral tradition, which holds that Madison fathered a child named Jim with a slave cook named Coreen, Kearse's great-great-great-great-grandmother. To prove it, Kearse has been working with Bruce Jackson, co-director of the Roots Project, which helps African Americans trace their genetic histories.

The plan is to compare the Y chromosomes -- which are identical across generations -- of male descendants in Madison's family to the Y chromosomes of some of Kearse's male cousins. Jackson and Kearse have been searching for Madison relatives in England but recently located a descendant of one of Madison's brothers in North Carolina.

"If he agreed on Monday, we'd be there the next day," said Jackson, who is researching the case out of Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley, Mass.

As to the likelihood of Kearse's story being true, Jackson, who spent Saturday taking cheek swab DNA samples from reunion attendees, said the results would speak for themselves.

"I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't a good shot," he said.

If a match is found, it would add another layer to the already complex portrait of a man who at once conceived of the Bill of Rights and kept as many as 100 slaves at his home.

On Saturday, standing amid the sprawling hills of the onetime 5,000-acre plantation, Kearse recalled a question she has struggled with for decades: Madison "truly was a great man. But was he really good? What I finally decided was 'no.' This was a man that owned people."

Nearly finished with her memoir, "The Other Madisons," Kearse described an oral history that reads like a 19th-century soap opera: It begins with a kidnapped African slave, Mandy, who Kearse says was impregnated at Montpelier by Madison's father. The child, Coreen, later gave birth to Madison's child, whom she named James Madison.

Years later, when Jim, as he was called, fell in love with a niece of Madison's wife, Dolley had him sold and sent to Tennessee. Before they were separated, Coreen told her son, "Always remember, you're a Madison." The line would lend strength to Kearse's ancestors as they navigated slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow and beyond.

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