Family Ties

African Americans use scientific advances to trace their roots

The African American DNA Roots Project is a molecular anthropology study designed to match African American lineages with those in West Africa, a region from which many slaves were taken. (Photo courtesy of M. Zokoswki)

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"I hadn’t thought of trying to connect the family through DNA to Madison. I hadn't planned on doing it because the Jefferson and Hemmings story had gotten so controversial and ugly," says Kearse of the recent verification that Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. She reconsidered after inviting Jackson to a commemoration of former Montpelier slaves set to take place this year.

Kearse and Jackson are still trying to locate a white male descendant of the Madisons who has a clear Y chromosome line to the family. Jackson is going to England in the spring to look for living descendants. However, even if the DNA is a match, it may never concretely link her family to the president because he had brothers who shared the same Y chromosome.

Nevertheless, the match would give weight to a story her family has lived with for generations. "Always remember you’re a Madison" became a source of inspiration for Kearse's early ancestors. Her family, she says, "realized this name came from a president, and it means we are supposed to do something with our lives."

Over the years, the saying came to mean something more. "When the slaves were freed after emancipation, the family added on to the saying,” says Kearse. "'Always remember you’re a Madison. You descended from slaves and a president.' "

But now Kearse has a new understanding of her heritage. "For me, it’s more important to have descended from Mandy, a woman who was captured from the coast of Ghana, survived the Middle Passage, survived the dehumanization of slavery," says Kearse, who is writing a book about her family. "For me, she is the source of pride."



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