Descendants of slaves trace roots at reunion
RICHMOND, Va. — Every time Bettye Kearse sets foot on former President James Madison’s plantation, she feels like she’s coming home.
She has spent much of her adult life wondering about her family’s saying, one passed down for generations: “Remember your name is Madison.”
Kearse, a pediatrician, planned to join about 100 other descendants of Madison’s slaves at his home, Montpelier, last weekend to share their stories and collect DNA samples that may piece together their history.
The reunion was one of a series of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, America’s first permanent English settlement.
It comes during a $23 million renovation to restore the home that Madison — America’s fourth president — shared with his wife, Dolley, in the 1800s. The renovation is expected to be complete next year.
“The majority of the people that lived and worked here were the slave community,” said Peggy Vaughn, Montpelier’s spokeswoman. “To interpret the history correctly, we have to know what we’re talking about.”
The investigation into Madison’s past echoes the one into the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Descendants of Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, claim Jefferson fathered at least some of Hemings’ children.
Genealogy searches and reunions like the one at Montpelier have surged since Alex Haley’s book “Roots” was released in 1976, Kearse said.
“Then African Americans realized, one, that they could trace their roots, and two, that they should do it,” Kearse said. “We all have stories and are grounded somewhere.”
Kearse said her family traces its roots back to a slave named Corean, who was reportedly owned by Madison and gave birth to a son named Jim. When Jim was sold to a plantation owner in Tennessee, she told him not to forget he was a Madison in case they should ever reconnect. Since then, the saying’s meaning has evolved.
“Initially it was a tool, then it became valuable after the slaves were free because my family really did well. They owned property, participated in government, learned to read and then they passed this legacy on,” Kearse said.
Most of the events were closed to the public, except for a keynote address last Saturday by historian and author John Hope Franklin and a wreath-laying ceremony at the slave cemetery Sunday, followed by a religious service.
Bruce Jackson, who works on the “Roots Project,” which links blacks to West African tribes, collected DNA samples to help people trace their roots.
“Everybody wants to know what their origins are and we’re not different,” Jackson said. “Knowing one’s origins is one of the passions of being American.”