When I read about the recent action by the Montpelier Foundation board to undo their decision to share authority with descendants of the enslaved, I recalled I had purchased a book by Bettye Kearse, one of the descendants and a member of the Foundation Board. Here’s a link to the Washington Post story about it. The subtitle of her book is The Lost History of a President’s Black Family. This is an intense and personal story told with great skill.
The author is the eighth generation family history storyteller, or West African griot/griotte, in her family. She was given this duty by her mother Ruby in 1990 and along with reading the trove of materials Ruby gave her, she has traveled for research and has presented us with this wonderful book. Each griot kept the family message alive: “Always remember–you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” The book begins with the Madison family tree: Maddisons in the UK, then James Madison, Sr. in Virginia, who had a child named Coreen with Mandy, along with 12 children with his wife Nelly Conway. James Madison, Jr. (the President) had no children with his wife Dolley and had a son Jim with Coreen, his half sister. The line is enumerated through to Bettye and to her daughter, the next griotte.
Bettye writes about growing up in California with music and dance lessons, summer camps, being a debutante in a cotillion. It was in 1990 when she was 47, married with a 17-year old daughter, and a pediatric practice, that Ruby brought her the box of memorabilia. When she asked her mother about her timing of passing this along, Ruby said, “I want to give you plenty of time to write the book.” The book was published in 2020.
The griots of West Africa relied on oral tradition to pass on the family history. Beginning with her great-grandfather Mack, letters, photographs, and documents were gathered to make the stories tangible and to support them. Bettye began her work by studying maps of West Africa, reading about the history of slavery in America, and biographies of James and Dolley Madison. Her efforts over the years to find and convince an established Madison descendent to have a DNA test was unsuccessful. For me her visits to Montpelier, an hour from where I live, was the most interesting. On her first visit there, she was introduced to Lynne Lewis, the chief archaeologist, who showed her a path of bare soil leading from the rear entry of the manor to an excavation site 70 feet way that was the site of a cooking hearth. She was moved to realize she was walking in the same path that her great-great-great-great-grandmother Coreen had walked.
My own experience of Montpelier began when it was occupied by Marion duPont Scott who notably had an annual steeplechase, a beloved day of revelry open to everyone in the community which we attended once. The house tours focused on her racehorse-raising life; she gave the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the property changed its focus to the Madison era.
Lynn Lewis also connected the author to Carolyn French, a black descendent of James Barbour, a major figure in Virginia history. She and her husband, a well-known doctor bought a house that belonged to Barbour’s great granddaughter. Both Carolyn and David French have died, but their son James is head of the Descendants Committee and on the Foundation board.
Bettye Kearse has written an engrossing book with many great stories. I loved every bit of it.
Bettye Kearse, The Other Madisons, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 243 pages. Available at the public library.