This article was first published 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.
Kearse is not the first African American to claim genetic ties to a founding father. Descendants of Sally Hemings, one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, met with resistance from the Jefferson family when they tried to verify their relation to the former president.
Ann Thornton, a former president of the National Society of Madison Family Descendants, would not comment on the veracity of Kearse’s claim, but said her family would cooperate with the search. “We want to help her in any way we can,” said Thornton, a descendant of two of Madison’s brothers. “We wish her well.”
Michael C. Quinn, president of the Montpelier Foundation, did not endorse or reject Kearse’s story. “At this point, we welcome all information that comes out of this conference,” he said. “We want to learn more.”
True or not, the fact that Madison — who is synonymous with individual liberty perhaps more than any other founder — was a slave owner all his life is something those assessing his character have had trouble reconciling. Even in the context of his time, Madison was not among the best of slave owners, researchers said.
“Here you have Madison, who is this great constitutional thinker, who comes up with the ideals of citizenship we know about and enjoy today, but in his plantation life and his home life, he’s actually a typical slave owner,” said Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at the foundation. “Oral history talks about Madison being a good owner, but most oral history comes back with that. What you see with Madison is, when it comes down to the end, his slaves are all sold, which is the worst fate for a slave.
“Once you sell a group of slaves, you don’t know what’s going to happen to them. That’s in some ways the litmus test. If you wanted to be a really good slave owner, you’d free your slaves like Washington did” after he died.
Jackson, speaking to attendees Saturday about how genetic research is conducted, noted that if Kearse’s claim proves correct, it would mean Madison’s only living direct descendants are African American.
Regardless of the DNA results, Kearse said she feels a connection to Coreen. Near the end of a long day of touring the estate, she arrived at the ruins of an unattached kitchen near the mansion where she said Coreen worked as a cook. She recalled seeing a groove during a previous visit that was worn into the ground by the continuous movement of slaves between the kitchen and the mansion. For a while, she stared quietly at the brick outline of the small structure, now filled in with weeds.
“I feel like she’s here,” she said.