Woman seeks roots to Madison, slave

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RICHMOND — Every time Bettye Kearse steps foot on President James Madison’s Montpelier estate, she feels like she’s coming home.

She has spent much of her adult life questioning her family’s saying: “Remember your name is Madison.” It has been passed down for generations, as have the stories about her ancestors that kept her from fidgeting as her mother would sew her clothes as a child.

Dr. Kearse, a pediatrician who is working on a book linking her lineage to Madison’s home, plans to join about 100 other descendants of slaves from Montpelier and other Orange County plantations to share their stories and collect DNA samples that may piece together their history.

Montpelier and the Orange County African-American Historical Society are hosts of the reunion tomorrow through Sunday at the central Virginia estate in Montpelier Station — the second of its kind there — to educate and celebrate the cultural history of the descendant community.

The reunion is one of a series of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, America’s first permanent English settlement. It also comes in the midst of a $23 million renovation to restore the home that Madison — the so-called “Father of the Constitution” and 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.”

Genealogy searches and reunions like these have surged since Alex Haley’s book “Roots” was released in 1976, Dr. Kearse said.

“Then African-Americans realized, one, that they could trace their roots, and two, that they should do it,” she said. “We all have stories and are grounded somewhere.”

Dr. Kearse said the family saying wired in her memory traces 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,” Dr. Kearse said.

Most of the events are closed to the public, except for a keynote address 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, will collect DNA samples to help people trace their roots.

“Everybody wants to know what their origins are and we’re not different,” Mr. Jackson said. “Knowing one’s origins is one of the passions of being American.”

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