Waiting in line to register at her first Continental Congress, she crew stares from some in the throng - "They do when you're different," she says. Others came right up and introduced themselves in a gesture of cordiality.
"I would think," says Karen Batchelor Farmer, 26, of Detroit, the first known black member of the 87-year history of the National Society of Daughters of American Revolution, "that they are trying to make me feel at home."
For the Daughters, whose 207,000 members can trace their ancestry back to the Revolutionary War, trying to make Karen Farmer feel "at home" this week is something of a milestone which many Americans once might not have thought possible.
Admission of a black to their ranks coupled with an upsurge in youthful members are indicators, be they slight, of the changes in Daughters are undergoing today. One-third of the entire membership is now in the 18-35 age group. But the older members still set the tone for the DAR's conservative stand on political issues.
Ever since the Daughters denied black singer Marian Anderson permission to perform in Constitution Hall in 1939, they have been branded by some as racists. The storm of indignation following that incident prompted some members, the most notable Eleanor Roosevelt, to resign. The DAR claimed it was due to a booking mixup and that on two previous occasions black artists had performed at the hall.
"If I hadn't read an account of it from an unbiased party (author Peggy Anderson's 1974 history, "The Daughters") I might have been outraged," says Farmer.
That this intellectually secure, highly motivated former psychology major at Fisk and later Oakland Universities, was not outraged also points up the importance she place on genealogical reasons for joining over any political ones.
Once thought to be the archetypal woman's club, the society's members continue to be stereo-typed as middle-aged (and older) WASP super-patriots interested in lineage (white) an conservative causes, but little else. Its membership today includes an astronaut, Rhea Seddon of Memphis, and a racial mix of American Indians and Mexican-Americans.
"At one time, the image of the DAR was not quite as we would wish it, but we are trying to turn that around," says President General Mrs. George Upham Baylies of Scarsdale, N.Y. When she took office a year ago, in fact, one of the "priorities" of her administration was to change the public's perception of the DAR.
Karen Farmer's affiliation is seen helping "to a points," says Bailies, although the Daughters did not recruit her. Once she tracked down her ancester, Pvt. William Hood of Eire, Pa., she still was unable to fulfill the second requirement of DAR membership - sponsorship by a DAR chapter. Finally, Ezra Parke chapter in Detroit approached her, offering support. A chapter in California subsequently questioned the genealogical research she did the uncovered ancestor.
"I believe they felt a gross error had been made and that maybe they could rectify it," she says.
Told by experts that her research had been "excellent" (she has now taken it up as a career), Farmer decided she did not have to deal with "nit-picking" so she "closed" her papers to public inspection, a prerogative of members.
While some experts estimate that 5,000 blacks either fought with the army or supported the American colonists in the War for Independence (there were additional blacks in the navy), none of their descendants has been known to have joined DAR before.
"Many blacks can trace their ancestors back to the colonial period," says Dr. Benjamin Quarles, retired professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore. "But their feelings of equality and self-dignity made them too proud to go where they weren't wanted. Many of these patriotic organizations are also social organizations. It's this social aspect that has made it difficult on blacks."
Farmer thinks it possible that some current DAR member has an ancestor among that group. Hers, however, was a white man of English descent who immigrated from Ireland. His progeny included Farmer's maternal great-grandmother, Jennie Daisy Hood, who married Prince Albert Weaver, a black man from Washington, D.C.
Farmers' search, begun after the birth of her son in August, 1975, and pre-dating publication of Alex Haley's best-selling book "Roots," led her through family histories, libraries and government records for nearly a year.
"I would sit waiting for the mail. I'd even wake up dreaming about William Hood," she says.
The DAR genealogical library, open to the public for one reason the society enjoys tax-free status granted by Congress, places a premium on original research. It is also anxious to learn the name of everyone who served in the revolutionary army. A New Jersey researcher recently turned up the names of 36 black soldiers.
As recently as five years ago, the society was still marking "first" where blacks were concerned. The late Air Force Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr., the first black man to deliver the keynote "address at the society's annual convention and quoting from black militant Eldridge Cleaver, drew a standing ovation from his all-white audience. "We do have another mile to run," James told them, "but we have a better track surface now."
It is the society superannuated image - not its traditional conservative one - that concerns Bayliss, however.
"I am not ashamed that it is a conservative organization," she says.
Neither, apparently, are the 4,000 delegates and members who voted this week on a slate of resolutions which included renewed opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (and extension of its March 22, 1979, deadline) and to the Panama Canal treaties by calling for action by the U.S. House of Representatives and in the courts.
Serving as chairman of the society's national defense committee is conservative Phyllis Schlafly, arch foe of both ERA and the Panama Canal treaties. Baylies believes Schlafly's highly visible committee post has no effect on the society's public image.
Farmer, on the other hand, while steering clear of political controversy, thinks it is essential for the DAR to rethink its image as influenced from within.
"I can see they (the society) have a lot of updating to do," she says, describing her own outlook as "modern." "But I've also considered all the negative criticism about the group. It is evident that they are still going strong."