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A war without end: The DAR and the 40-year fight to honor Lena Ferguson

Lena Ferguson holds a picture of her great grandfather John Curtis Gay in Washington 1985. (Scott Stewart/AP)

When the Daughters of the American Revolution convened their annual Continental Congress in D.C. last week, 4,000 delegates representing 198,000 members showed up. It was one of the largest national meetings in DAR history.

Denise VanBuren, the DAR’s outgoing president general, said she noticed something else about the assembly: An apparent increase in women of color in their membership.

“We don’t ask about race on our membership applications, so nobody knows how many people of color have joined our society,” VanBuren said. “I can only tell you, anecdotally, when I first came to our Continental Congress in 1990, there were only a handful, at best, of women of color, and today there are scores of women of color in our building.”

To VanBuren, the increasingly diverse membership, along with initiatives to identify and honor more Black patriots, helps fulfill the terms of an agreement struck 40 years ago to right an egregious racial wrong.

Not the well-known wrong done to Marian Anderson, the famous Black opera singer who was barred from performing at the DAR’s Constitution Hall in D.C. That was in 1939. Not the wrong done to Hazel Scott, the famous Black pianist, who was barred from the hall in 1945.

The wrong that really rocked the DAR out of its antebellum slumber occurred in 1983, when a little-known D.C. resident, a retired Black school secretary named Lena S. Ferguson, was denied membership in the DAR because of her race. In a city then led by two civil rights activists — David Clarke as chairman of the D.C. Council and Marion Barry as mayor — the ensuing outrage was fierce. Under threat of having its tax- exempt status revoked, the DAR reversed the decision and, in 1984, granted Ferguson full membership.

DAR admits Lena S. Ferguson to the organization

As a newly minted member, Ferguson opted not to file a racial discrimination lawsuit. Instead, she preferred a more diplomatic path — an agreement that the DAR would identify and honor more Black patriots, tell stories about the Revolutionary War that were more inclusive, and make the organization more welcoming to women of color.

“I think you’ll be impressed with the work we’ve done in large part because of the Lena Ferguson agreement,” VanBuren said. “We fully recognize the fact that she directed us on a path that has made us a more inclusive society.”

Enter Maurice Barboza, Ferguson’s nephew. A lawyer living in Alexandria, Barboza had encouraged his aunt to join the DAR after tracing the family ancestry back to the Revolutionary War. Forty years later, he’s still disgusted with how the DAR humiliated his aunt and continues to prod them to honor the agreement.

“This notion that the DAR is changing is just lip service,” Barboza said. “They don’t track the race of DAR members, so how do they know if progress is really being made? They never really embraced the agreement. There was stalling and resistance from the beginning.”

He wants the DAR to try harder to find all the Black patriots and track down their descendants, too.

VanBuren says that the DAR has already identified more than 6,000 patriots of color and that the search continues. The organization has created an African American lineage research task force and employs a professional researcher. There also are multiple databases on the DAR website that prospective members can use to trace family heritage.

“We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” VanBuren said. “And because we want their descendants to join the DAR.”

The new faces around the DAR are not figments of her imagination. There is progress to be claimed.

In 2018, Reisha Raney, a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson’s aunt, became the first Black officer in the DAR’s Maryland branch and one of only four Black people to ever be named a state officer.

A complicated family history places black Md. woman in DAR’s ranks

A graduate of Spelman College and research fellow at Harvard, Raney is looking into the DAR’s racial history with an emphasis on finding the stories of Black women.

“I think it’s important for me to collect these narratives to educate the public and society in general about how different the Daughters of the American Revolution is today compared to what they have been known for in the past,” Raney told USA Today. “It seems like they can’t shake that reputation no matter how many changes that they make and how many amends they make.”

Karen Batchelor, who became the first Black female member of the DAR in 1977, said of Raney’s ascent to the DAR leadership, “It’s a great thing and shows the progress of this organization over the years.”

In 2019, Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly became the head of the DAR’s New York operation and the first African American woman to sit on its national governing board.

Even Ferguson acknowledged the change.

Having become chairman and founder of the D.C. DAR Scholarship Committee, with two scholarships awarded in her name, Ferguson told The Washington Post in 1996: “I think they [the DAR] are more sincere now. I think they are trying to put a new face on the organization. They do a lot of good work.”

Ferguson died in 2004, the same year Wilhelmena Kelly joined the New York DAR.

Barboza certainly deserves credit for tenacity, for all the years spent trying to bring an elite White-women-only organization, founded in 1890, into the 21st century.

Largely because of him and Ferguson, the DAR membership now includes Black women capable of carrying on her legacy.

Besides, there’s another important task that requires an end to this 40-year war. In 1986, Ferguson and Barboza won congressional authorization to honor African Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War with a monument on the National Mall. They raised enough money to fund a design but not enough to build the memorial.

What better ally to have in that endeavor than the 198,000 members of the DAR?

In 2026, just four years from now, the nation will mark its 250th anniversary. A memorial to those forgotten Black patriots sure would be a nice touch.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Lena Ferguson’s great grandfather in a photo caption. The story has been corrected.