The Virginia Festival of the Book in partnership with Encyclopedia Virginia presented Dr. Bettye Kearse for a discussion of her book, The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family, in conversation with Dr. Shelley Murphy, who conducts the Descendant Outreach Program at the University of Virginia. Dr. Kearse shared her family’s story, retained by eight generations of griots and griottes in oral and written histories and confirmed by her own extensive research in her quest to discover and tell a more complete story of an extraordinary American family.
Watch the video from this event and read the transcript below:
“The story my family kept alive and those that other African-American families kept alive have evolved for memory to heritage and now can emerge as history, a more inclusive and complete history.”Dr. Bettye Kearse, The Other Madisons
“A Roots for a new generation, rich in storytelling and steeped in history.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Astonishing… In extraordinary times, as statues fall, Bettye Kearse has written an extraordinary book. It contains lessons for all Americans… Powerful…Seeking to validate and enlarge the black Madisons’ saga, to tell a nuanced story until now completely unknown, [Kearse] succeeds richly…Leaving her much-celebrated white ancestors in the background, she restores the black Madisons to history. They are resilient Americans, second to none.” —Michael Henry Adams, The Guardian
“[An] evocative and probing debut…[Kearse] succeeds in portraying her family’s tenacious rise in social standing across eight generations. This moving account asks essential questions about how American history gets told.” —Publishers Weekly
Thanks to our community partners for their help in sharing this event: Montpelier Descendants Committee, Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia, Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.
PATTI MILLER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Patti Miller, the editor of Encyclopedia Virginia, another program of Virginia Humanities. We are pleased to be cosponsoring today’s event and are really looking forward to what’s going to be a wonderful discussion.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Encyclopedia Virginia, we’re a free, reliable, user-friendly resource that tells the inclusive story of the history and culture of Virginia. We really invite you to check out our entries—one in particular that might be of interest today is our entry on James Madison and slavery. We really share information for people who seek to understand how the past informs both the present and the future.
And we are very happy today to have some community partners for help in sharing this event that includes the Montpelier Descendents Committee, the Descendants of the Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia, and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. So welcome, everyone from those organizations.
A couple of housekeeping notes before we get started. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab in Zoom, and we will get to the questions that we can. We’re slated to go for about forty-five minutes. So, if you do have a question, please get it in early so we can be sure to consider it. This event is closed caption optioned, so you can turn that on and customize that with the closed caption tab at the bottom of your window. And if you haven’t read today’s book, we really hope you will. For details how to buy it from a local bookstore or to check out a copy from your library, please visit VaBook.org, where you can explore the full schedule of our other events. And while you’re there, please consider making a donation to the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give so we can continue to bring you programs like this.
And now, with no further ado, I’m so pleased to introduce today’s speakers. We are so pleased to welcome Dr. Bettye Kearse, author of The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family. Dr. Kearse is a retired pediatrician, a descendent of a slave and President Madison, and a founding member of the Montpelier Descendents Committee. She is published in River Teeth, TIME, ImageMakers & Influencers, Mental Floss, and Black Lives Have Always Mattered. To learn more about her work, you can follow her at BettyeKearse.com.
And also, I’m pleased to introduce Dr. Shelley Murphy, a genealogical researcher for more than thirty years. She is the descendent project researcher for the University of Virginia, an instructor at the Midwestern African American Genealogical Institute, and a member of the Jack Jouett DAR chapter. She serves on the boards of the Library of Virginia and the Albemarle and Fluvanna Historical Societies. Betty, Shelley, thank you so much for joining us for Shelf Life, and please tell us more about The Other Madisons.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Thank you. Well, welcome, Bettye.
BETTYE KEARSE: Thank you.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Let’s get started. When did you first learn you were a descendent of President Madison?
BETTYE KEARSE: I was about five years old. My mother would tell me the family stories, most often when I was getting fidgety, and she wanted to calm me down. Let me just say that. So, she would tell me about all of our ancestors, even before Madison and then going up to even her own father.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Well, it took you thirty years to write this book. Why is that?
BETTYE KEARSE: Oh, there are many reasons. In 1990, my mother delivered to me the old cardboard box of family memorabilia. And when I asked her why now, she said, “I wanted to give you plenty of time to write the book.”
What she meant by that was that she just wanted me to write down these family stories that she had been telling me for years and years. But there was so much more to these stories than just the individual people in my family. Those people represented other people—other enslaved people, in particular. So, I wanted to do more with the book, so I wrote it as a work of fiction so that my ancestors could speak for other people’s ancestors. But my fiction wasn’t that good then.
I wanted to put myself into the narrative and give my own take on the history. So, then I made it a memoir. So that was one reason. I just didn’t really know the best way to handle this rich material that I had.
Then another reason was that the research was very difficult. And this is true for most African Americans. Names are not mentioned, families are torn apart, and names were changed if they were ever written down at all. There were an amazing number of fires in courthouses. And both James and Dolly Madison had requested that their personal papers be destroyed upon their deaths. So that loss—
SHELLEY MURPHY: That’s interesting.
BETTYE KEARSE: Yeah. And so, the research was just really very difficult. Lots of dead ends. And then I decided to travel, to go places where my ancestors had been, and that just took time. And an important reason why it took so long is that I had to grow as a person.
So those are—there’s actually other reasons, but yeah, it did take me thirty years. I have to throw in, for anybody who’s interested in writing, that it’s really difficult to find agents and publishers.
SHELLEY MURPHY: So, describe the evolution of this family credo. And I’ve read the book, and it’s, “Always remember you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.”
BETTYE KEARSE: Yes, that is an important thread through eight generations of my family. The credo actually began shortly after the War of 1812, and Dolly Madison had just sold my great-great-great-grandfather. His name was Jim, and he was President Madison’s son, the son of a slave cook whose name was Coreen and President Madison. So as Jim was being taken away, Coreen, his mother, thought that if he could remember his name, they might be able to find each other someday. So, she said, “Always remember you’re a Madison.” So, it was a tool.
And generations later, when my ancestors were freed through emancipation, they could use the name at that time as more than just a tool. Now it could become a source of inspiration. So, my great-great-grandfather, Emmanuel, added a word. “Always remember you’re a Madison. You come from a president.” And then my grandfather was proud that his enslaved ancestors had overcome enslavement. My grandfather was born free, but he was proud of his father and great-grandfather and on back. So, he added “African slaves” to the credo. “Always remember you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.”
SHELLEY MURPHY: I love that. How did you make a decision to give Mandy a voice in the narrative? How did it feel to write as if you were Mandy in some aspects?
BETTYE KEARSE: Well, let me just say Mandy was my family’s first African ancestor in America. And she was our first oral historian. And as I did my research, I just grew close to Mandy. I came to admire her. I had gone to places where she had been in order to walk where she had walked and see what she had seen. And I grew close to her. And so, after a while, I became very certain of what she wanted me to know and what she wanted me to share. And what better way to do it than have her speak for herself?
SHELLEY MURPHY: Yes, yes. So, it was important for you to trace Mandy’s footsteps. But why did you feel it was also important—and as a genealogist, we strive to go to the places where our ancestors are. So as far as for Mandy, what drove you to visit those places where she would have been—or any of your ancestors would have been?
BETTYE KEARSE: Well, Shelley, I grew up protected and just really sheltered. And I came to understand that I was missing a vital part of who I am. Not that I’m masochistic. I am not. But I recognize why not having experienced any of the hardships that those ancestors who had helped make me who I am—that I was just missing something vital about myself. And so I went to Ghana, West Africa, and Baltimore, Maryland. The reason for going to Baltimore is that there is a replica of a slave ship like the one that had carried Mandy away from home. And there’s just nothing like being there. You can read about it, but you have to be there to kind of understand in even a small way what it was like to be stolen, to be put on an auction block, to never see people again that you loved and to become a slave. And yet to find a way to maintain a sense of your own humanity. I just felt I had to be in the actual places.
SHELLEY MURPHY: I understand. As you researched and you wrote about this, how did you deal with the violence and the brutality of the history of this country that related right to the stories of your family? How was that, trying to write that? I find that difficult in reading and watching, but you as the author and you’re telling your family story. Share with us your experience on that.
BETTYE KEARSE: Well, I kind of have two answers. It’s sort of—the writing sort of depended on how I felt that day. Some days, I was really angry and just enraged by the massive cruelty of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and of slavery itself. I would just be overwhelmed with anger. But then there were other days when I felt some pride. Because my ancestors endured that. They had the inner strength and the sense of their own being to know that they could and should make it through. So, it was just great pride. But like I said, it depended on the day.
SHELLEY MURPHY: And you recognized the surviving of the whole history of this, and we wouldn’t be here if they wouldn’t have endured and survived that. So, I feel you on that.
BETTYE KEARSE: I remember this quote by Helen Marshall. She was a member of the New York City Council and involved in the African burial ground. And she said, “Our magnificence is in our survival.”
SHELLEY MURPHY: Wonderful. That’s beautiful. So, you’re the eighth griotte in your family—eighth generation. Where does the torch go from here? Who takes it from you? Is there someone, or have you met your mission as the griot as handed down from your mom?
BETTYE KEARSE: Well, there is hopefully no end to the stream of griottes and griots. So, I mentioned that Mandy, our first African ancestor in America, was also our first griot. But every generation, someone is chosen to carry on the tradition of the oral history. And so, I’m the eighth generation, and I have a daughter. I only have one child, so she will become the ninth generation griotte. But my daughter has two children, so she will choose one of those two to become the tenth generation griotte or griot. And then that person is responsible for choosing the next one, and hopefully it’ll just go on and on.
SHELLEY MURPHY: So, you talk about a lot of this in the book about the oral history and it being important. What does it provide in your case that written history cannot? So, I’d like the people that are watching to understand the value you saw in your writings about what came down through the generations.
BETTYE KEARSE: Well, very often oral history is all that African Americans have. Because as I mentioned earlier about when I was doing my research, there’s very little written records that you can get your hands on. But even beyond that, oral history provides a way of actually getting to know your ancestors and getting to understand why you are who you are. And it’s a way of passing down not just information, but it passes down values and beliefs. And you just get to know these people, whether or not they were grumpy or had humor or—
SHELLEY MURPHY: Yeah, yeah. But you’re developing some things that might relate to how you do things or things you saw your mother do. So, you wanted to share a little reading on the book for us?
BETTYE KEARSE: Yes. This is a short reading. It’s just the first three paragraphs of Chapter Three. And the chapter is called “Family Stories.”
Though four inches taller than my mother, I felt small next to her. We sat on the sofa, the box between us. Mom leaned back into the pillows, her slender hands delicate, their joints and veins forming intricate angles and planes in her translucent skin. The woman at my side was much more than my mother. She was a woman of ancient times, passing on a legacy for future generations. As she spoke, I reached for her hand and held on to it.
“Always remember you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president,” she said. Her thin, high-pitched voice resonated through my living room, repeating the words I had heard so many times, each word lingering with a hint of a Texan drawl.
“Exactly thirty years ago,” she said, “when my daddy was very ill, he made me the griotte. It tired him out, but over three days he told me all the stories: the ones passed down to him and the ones about his own life. Then, at the end of the third day, he reminded me that our history goes well beyond America’s boundaries. What we believe in and what is important to us come from the vastly different beliefs and values people hold in Europe and Africa. And this,” she said, searching my eyes, “is very important, Bettye. Each griot in our family has to understand that the Other Madisons might struggle sometimes to know how to live our lives, but when we share our stories, we build a sense of togetherness, and we learn who we are.”
SHELLEY MURPHY: You know you’re getting me right to the heart here. Love that. So, I’m going to ask you about another little story. I know one of the chapters is called “Beads.” But I want you to tell me about the red ring.
BETTYE KEARSE: Okay, well let me just explain why I talk about beads. That is, according to the family stories, Mandy had many beads in her hair when she was captured. But by the time she ended up at Montpelier as a slave, she only had one bead left in her hair. And that bead she cherished for the rest of her life and may have given that bead to her daughter Coreen, who worked in the kitchen at Montpelier.
Now in 2016, Matt Reaves, who is director of archaeology, and some of the other archaeologists working there were excavating the south kitchen, which is a kitchen that’s actually about seventy feet away from the mansion. They were excavating, and they discovered a red ring, which was made of cornelian and came from Africa. So, I now wonder if the bead was actually a ring.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Awesome. Love it. Can you share your experience? Because I know when you visited Montpelier, you walked in Coreen’s footsteps. And then you visited the slave cemetery. Can you share with us your experience about that?
BETTYE KEARSE: Those were two just phenomenal experiences. So Coreen was the enslaved cook, the woman who had the relationship with James Madison. And on my first visit to Montpelier, which was in 1992, the chief archaeologist at that time was Lynn Lewis. And she took me to the rear of the mansion where they had just started excavating the kitchen. And she pointed out a groove in the ground that ran from the kitchen to the rear entry of the mansion. And she explained to me that that furrow had been formed by generations of enslaved cooks walking to and from the mansion to serve the Madisons and their many guests. So, this was where Coreen had literally walked. So, I walked in that groove, and I was walking literally in my ancestors’ footsteps. Just to be able to do that was actually unbelievable. To know I was in the exact place where she had been.
Then the other amazing experience that I had was about five or six years later, one of many visits I had to Montpelier. I went to the slave cemetery, and it’s an area not far from the mansion. Sort of down the hill. But it’s a wooded area that has many, many trees in it. And it also has crude blocks of white quartz, which the enslaved people used as headstones and footstones. So, when I entered this cemetery—this area—there was one tree out of these many trees that actually called me to it. I knew I was supposed to go to that tree. And at the base of that tree was a smooth rock. I’m saying was, but I hope it’s still there. I’m sure it’s still there. But this rock was kind of shiny and smooth and almost reminded me of human flesh. And I just knew, and I know today that that is where Mandy is buried. I felt so drawn to her, especially when I reached down and touched that rock.
SHELLEY MURPHY: That’s beautiful. And I feel that sense of the proud moment and that connection you have. So, I’m sure there’s a question that would come up. Have you had any connections with—and I’m going to say the white Madison or the Madison family on James’ side? Has there been any interaction, questions, anything about the book? Share with us any comments you can on that.
BETTYE KEARSE: I actually haven’t had any comments from them about the book, but I have met—I’m going to call them the recognized Madisons. I’ve met Conny Graft, who is a descendent of one of Madison’s sisters. And she calls me cousin. And then I met another woman who actually lives in Santa Fe and had a Nia studio, which is kind of a dance studio. And she said, “You know, we’re probably related,” and she calls me cousin. And I’ve met others who were not so welcoming, and that’s to be expected.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Sure, sure. Absolutely. So, is there anything that you can share from your story of Coreen and Mandy that would help us today with what we’re dealing with in 2021, or say the last few years? You know, such as the racism aspects, the Black Lives Matter, white supremacy, and something in that form. What can we take away from this book that could either help us or guide us? Because I know, as in any family, the oral history that comes down in the stories, there’s always a message within it. So, what is your message that you want your readers to take away to help us deal with what we’re dealing with in 2021?
BETTYE KEARSE: The takeaway message is that I would like African Americans to embrace their slave ancestry, to recognize that enslaved people were remarkable individuals who possessed inner strength and a sense of balance and a sense of hope, which enabled them to get through slavery. They always recognized their own humanity. And they also had a lot of talents and contributed to this country in every way you can think of. And the really important part is that when they died, those qualities did not die with them. Instead, they were passed down to those of us today.
So, it’s particularly important for our young people to recognize those qualities in themselves and to grab on to them and nurture them, so that they can combat the effects of racism and they can also contribute, as their ancestors did, to this country.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Wonderful. So, another question that comes to mind for me as a researcher. A lot of times when we’re researching, we’re looking at documents or certain collections that might be out there. But an oral history is a little different because you’re passing down information. But they’re also giant leads that lead you to a document possibly. We typically have the census and things like that. Was there anything that you know of in the Madison Papers that mention Mandy’s name or Coreen? And I’m saying papers—it could be a collection or an inventory list. And I think of this as one of the research tools that we would go looking for. Is there anything written down with Mandy’s name on it, or Coreen’s?
BETTYE KEARSE: I don’t have knowledge of any place that those names are actually recorded. If they ever were written down, they’re gone now.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Mmm-hmm. Because that’s some of the big challenges with oral history. And I agree with you, as an African American researcher, that we have to take more pride and go ahead and grab that story because it fits in the timeline just as well. So, for future generations, as in one of your grandchildren, is there an additional message that you will hand down to them, as things came to you, and then you have the book and what gets passed to your daughter. Is there something that you’re going to add to this experience for your grandchild to take forward?
BETTYE KEARSE: Well, besides the message that I mentioned, that I would like them to embrace their slave ancestry, which by the way, is particularly important for my grandchildren because they live in London, England. So, it’s not part of what they learn. So, it’s up to me and my daughter to talk about these individuals and all their strengths.
But I don’t know if my daughter would encourage this message exactly, but one of the things that Mandy passed down is that we should be fighting mad. That our anger can be a source of strength, especially when we are able to use that anger to make change, to join forces with other people—other descendents of enslaved people—to continue to make that change.
So, we’ve seen here in this country—we saw the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement and more recently the Black Lives Matter Movement. I don’t know if my daughter wants me to encourage my grandchildren to be kind of militant. But it’s important to sort of step out there and go to the line to make change.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Were you able—this is a question from the audience. Were you able to discover anything in your research to indicate how Mandy came to Montpelier?
BETTYE KEARSE: Well, there are really no records of her arrival. And when I’ve spoken to historians at Montpelier, they told me that she was probably purchased in Fredericksburg because that’s where many of the enslaved people at Montpelier came from. But most of it is oral history.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Which is where it comes from. That’s the root of all of our history. And I believe the records get created sometimes from there. So just to close out—it’s time for us to basically wrap things up. I don’t see any other questions. So, I just want to thank you, Bettye. This has been very wonderful, and I want to thank everybody that’s tuned in. Please consider buying Bettye’s book, The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Family. And you can find that at the local bookseller or through the chat box. There was a link put in there. You can also explore whatever events are coming up from the Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. And we really appreciate your time today, Bettye. Thank you very much.
BETTYE KEARSE: Oh, it’s been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you so much for this conversation.
SHELLEY MURPHY: I’m proud to be part of this with you. Yeah, very proud.
BETTYE KEARSE: Thank you. Thank you. Well, the Virginia Festival of the Book and the Encyclopedia Virginia—I thank you as well.
SHELLEY MURPHY: Thank you. Have a great day, everybody.