When the Daughters of the American Revolution accepted Lena S. Ferguson as an at-large member last spring, the group expressed the hope that "it will be possible for you to become an active member of a local chapter and participate in the excellent work of the organization."
Nearly a year later, the Washington resident still is not a member of a local chapter, and she and her two DAR sponsors say the reason is that Ferguson is black.
"It was made clear to me that she was not welcome because she is black," said Margaret M. Johnston, a DAR member who tried to get Ferguson accepted as a member of the DAR's Mary Washington Chapter here.
"One or two friends who are members said, 'I don't see how you can think of this sponsoring a black ,' " said Elizabeth E. Thompson, another DAR member who tried, as Ferguson's second sponsor, to get her admitted. "One of them said, 'Our chapter will probably fall apart.' I said the fabric couldn't have much strength," said Thompson, adding, "She came up against prejudices."
Ferguson, who was rejected by the local chapter before she became a member at large, said she does not know how she can overcome the objections that have been raised but still hopes to find a way to join a local chapter--even if it means starting a new chapter.
The DAR does not keep membership records by race, but DAR officers said they only know of five black members, three from the same family in Detroit. There are 212,000 DAR members nationwide.
As a member at large, Ferguson is not accorded full privileges of membership, which include the right to vote, hold office and participate in local social and charitable activities.
The DAR helps immigrants obtain citizenship, supports needy schools, gives scholarships to American Indian children and maintains a museum and archives.
The 2 percent of DAR members who choose to become members at large usually do so because they cannot travel to local chapter meetings because they live in remote areas, are infirm or are living overseas.
"The reason I kept pursuing it is I wanted to prove that if this organization stands for what it says it stands for--honoring people who served in the revolution--I should be able to join," Ferguson said. "I would still like to take part. I would like them to say, 'You're welcome at this chapter.' "
Sarah M. King, the president general of the DAR, said each of the DAR's more than 3,000 local chapters decides if it wishes to accept members. Asked if the DAR considers discrimination against blacks by its local chapters to be acceptable, she said, "If you give a dinner party, and someone insisted on coming and you didn't want them, what would you do?"
"Being black is not the only reason why some people have not been accepted into chapters," King continued. "There are other reasons: divorce, spite, neighbors' dislike. I would say being black is very far down the line . . . . There are a lot of people who are troublemakers. You wouldn't want them in there because they could cause some problems."
King said there are many blacks who fought in the revolution, and she cited the Rhode Island Reds regiment in particular. "See if you can find me one," she said. "We want them blacks , but I do think the lines should have integrity and legitimate descent. I don't think you can have it any other way," King said.
Maudine R. Cooper, director of the District's Commission on Human Rights, said the DAR's exemption from local property taxes could be jeopardized if it is found to discriminate against blacks. DAR headquarters at 1776 D St. NW is assessed at $25 million but pays no local taxes, which would amount to $534,497 a year.
For some DAR members, the issues raised by Lena Ferguson's rejection and King's reference to "legitimate" descent raise troubling questions about the nature of the 94-year-old society and its response to changes in racial attitudes. The questions come at a time when Congress is debating and voting upon a resolution that would specifically recognize the contributions of blacks to the American Revolution.
For years, the DAR required applicants to demonstrate only that they are directly descended from a soldier or supporter of the revolution. About five years ago, the society changed its application forms to require, in addition, proof of marriage going back each generation. Now the DAR is proposing to tighten the requirements still further by amending the bylaws so that only "legitimate" descendants may be recognized for purposes of membership.
While the distinctions may appear to be fine, genealogists, who trace lineage, and some DAR members say such changes restrict black membership, since slaves and many free blacks in southern states were not allowed to marry legally in revolutionary times.
"Genealogy is based on absolute proof of paternity. Whether the marriage is legal or illegal is not relevant," said James Dent Walker, retired director of local history and genealogy of the National Archives. "This the proposal impedes blacks," he said.
But King said the new proposal has "nothing to do with black people. It has to do with the modern trends of society . . . . We're trying to guarantee the integrity of the society," she said, adding, "I don't feel it is an entirely white organization. I know we had two blacks in 1895."
"The DAR is living in the past," said Ann T. Morton, a vice president general of the national DAR. "We're going to have to accept the fact that marriages don't always take place." She said the proposed rule--to be voted upon at the annual congress here in April--would exclude, in the future, both blacks and whites whose parents never married.
Morton, who lives in Auburn, Mass., said she believes many DAR chapters would accept blacks if they applied, and she suggested Ferguson could come to Massachusetts and join. "Massachusetts would be happy to have her," she said. "I think it's kind of sick to keep them out because they're black. The idea of a black woman, for some members, is more than they can bear."
Whether more blacks would be accepted by chapters depends, according to King, on the reaction of DAR members to whether the applicants appear "pushy."
"I think there are many black people who are charming and completely acceptable because they make themselves so. If they join because they love their country and feel DAR provides a vehicle for building responsible citizenship, and they're not making an issue of their race, they would be accepted," she said.
Ferguson, administrative secretary at Our Lady Queen of Peace School of Washington, began her quest to become a member in 1980, when her nephew, Maurice A. Barboza, became a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, the male counterpart of the DAR.
"There was this picture hanging in the living room in Plainville, Connecticut, where I grew up, of my great-grandfather, who was white," she said. "He was in a Civil War uniform. It fascinated me because it was a big picture, and my mother would tell me about it," said Ferguson, who was then in grade school.
"Then, one day I was sitting in the living room, and I overheard my mother and father talking about Marian Anderson the famous singer being barred at Constitution Hall," Ferguson said. "It just made me angry. I guess I felt that if the chance arose, I would confront them and prove to them that blacks had contributed so much to this country and should be recognized."
Ferguson recalled that she first experienced the pain of discrimination when she came to Washington in 1952. Invited here by the Navy for a job interview, she tried to register at the hotel where a room had been reserved for her. " . . . I think the woman behind the desk nearly fainted when she saw me. She said, 'I'm sorry but we don't have a reservation for you.' "
Barboza, her nephew, said that in 1978 he visited the National Archives, searching for records that would shed light on the background of the man whose portrait hung in his grandmother's living room.
"I decided I would go to Maine and search for the family roots," said Barboza, a lobbyist with the American Bar Association. "I went through these musty old courthouses and town halls and traced it back to 1790, when the family arrived in Union, Maine." At the DAR library, Barboza said, he found a volume that traced the family tree back further to Jonah Gay, who helped the Revolutionary War effort as a member of a Friendship, Maine, town committee.
At the suggestion of a black genealogist, Barboza applied for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. "I joined in four or five months in 1980. I had no problem at all," he said. He suggested to Ferguson that she join the DAR.
She had met Johnston through a mutual friend, and Johnston invited her to a meeting of the DAR's Mary Washington chapter on March 10, 1981. A month later, Ferguson attended a chapter tea.
Normally, at such functions, members meet prospective members and volunteer to act as their sponsors. As a rule, candidates are invited to join about a month later, following a vote by the chapter's executive committee or the full membership, according to King and other DAR officers.
"I went, and they were cool," said Ferguson. "She would introduce me, and they would say, 'Hello,' and turn their backs. Nobody made an effort to say, 'We'd like to have you or get to know you so I could sponsor you.' Nothing."
Johnston, a board member of the League of Women Voters of D.C. and a former D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner, said she tried in frustration to submit an application form for Ferguson, hoping an officer would sign as a second sponsor. The move was not well received, since an invitation is supposed to precede the formal application.
"She should have had two sponsors to begin with," said Eleanor Niebell, who at the time was the DAR's state regent for the District. "To have application papers when you're not supposed to have them is a little strange."
Ferguson attended a third function, a luncheon on Feb. 15, 1982, and was told by a chapter member that she should have patience, according to Ferguson.
"I asked her how I go about finding another sponsor. She informed me there were other chapters I could look into. She said don't push too hard. She made a remark about what 'you people' have done to 'my people.' And she said she would be 'foolish' if she tried to join an all-black organization, since she felt she would be ostracized," Ferguson recalled.
"I told her that wasn't so, and I would be more than happy to invite her to my home and have her meet some of my black friends. She said no," Ferguson said.
By April, the story of Ferguson's efforts had appeared in The Washington Post, and Johnston became more aggressive. She sent a letter to each member of the chapter asking for a second sponsor.
Thompson got the letter and invited Ferguson to lunch at her home. She liked her immediately and signed as her second sponsor.
"I did stick my neck out," said Thompson, a chapter member since 1953. "I don't want to be a martyr." But she said, "I believe with all my heart that her ancestors fought just as hard as mine. I can't imagine the Lord standing at the gates to Heaven saying we want only whites . . . . It seems amazing all this would happen in the 20th century."
Whether the chapter ever voted on Ferguson is not clear. Marion Howard, an officer of the chapter, said when asked about Ferguson in a telephone conversation that the matter is "personal." Then she hung up.
Niebell, the state regent at the time, said she knows of no other case where an applicant with two sponsors has been turned down.
"I don't see why it looks bad. There are a lot of black organizations I can't join," she said, comparing Ferguson's efforts to a person of a different religion trying to join a church.
Johnston said that she and Ferguson have not approached any of the other 38 chapters in Washington because Ferguson's situation is publicly known and no invitation has been extended.
In another case, Karen B. Farmer, a black from Detroit who was approved by the national DAR for membership, received an invitation from a Michigan DAR chapter after another turned her down.
Johnston says she has now severed her ties with the Mary Washington chapter and has become a member at large as a preliminary step to forming a new chapter with Ferguson. But Neibell said no new chapter can be formed at this time because not all the District's chapters have at least 50 members.
"I still want to become a member of a chapter," Ferguson said. "In all of their pamphlets, they say you should try to become a member of a chapter . . . I'm still waiting."