Proving Lineage to a President

As a child, Bettye Kearse heard the same story that her mother and grandfather heard when they were children: She was a direct descendant of former President James Madison. She and forensic scientist Dr. Bruce Jackson talk about trying to prove Kearse's lineage through DNA testing.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And our last headline takes us to Montpelier, Virginia, home of America's fourth president, James Madison. Last weekend, visitors gathered there for an unusual event, the second Montpelier Slave Descendants Reunion. That's right. Madison owned upwards of 100 slaves. Their distant relatives gathered to swap stories and swab DNA samples.

Why? Well, for pediatrician Bettye Kearse, it's personal. She believes that her family descends not just from one of Madison's slaves but from Madison himself. And she's trying to prove it genetically, with the help of Dr. Bruce Jackson. He's the chair of the Department of Science and professor of biotechnology at Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Dr. Kearse, Dr. Jackson, thanks for coming in.

Dr. BRUCE JACKSON (Chair, Department of Science; Professor of Biotechnology, Massachusetts Bay Community College; Co-Director, The Roots Project): Glad to be here.

Dr. BETTYE KEARSE (Pediatrician, Neponset Health Center, Massachusetts): Oh.

CHIDEYA: So, Betty, let me go to you. Your family lore has been passed down from generation to generation in griot style. There's a phrase in your family, always remember you're a Madison. What's the origin of that phrase?

Dr. KEARSE: That phrase began when Coreen, who actually had the relationship with James Madison, learned that her son was about to be sold and sent away. And she believed that the only way in which they might be able to find each other again was if he would remember that his name was Madison.

CHIDEYA: So there was an addendum also to the family lore that said, always remember you're a Madison and then adding, and a descendant of slaves. Tell us what journey your family had to take to go from part A of that story to part B of that story.

Dr. KEARSE: Well, getting back to the saying - always remember you're a Madison - when emancipation came and the slaves were free and no longer under the threat of being separated through being sold away from each other, they recognized that there were some inspiration in the name that for the first time, they recognized the importance of being a descendant of a president. And the importance was that they have blood of this great man in their veins, so they, too, should achieve as much as they could.

Later on, in my grandfather's time, he added something on to the saying. It became, always remember you're a Madison. You descend from a president and from strong African slaves.

CHIDEYA: Where are you right now in trying to trace your family's history and DNA, and who are you recruiting? We've got Dr. Jackson on with us to really help you figure this out.

Dr. KEARSE: Well, Dr. Jackson is working with us to do the DNA of cousins of mine who would have the same chromosome, the Y-chromosome that Madison have -had. And he's also looking for a member of the white family, if I may say that, both in this country and in England to try to find a match of the Y-chromosomes.

CHIDEYA: I want to go to you, Dr. Jackson. There has been so much work done in the past 10 and 20 years about understanding that American history has got a lot of highways and byways. You look at the Jefferson family and the question of slave ancestry and Jeffersonian ancestry, and there are a lot of people asking a lot of questions about how the families that made up America's early history, not just the ones who's names are on the Declaration of Independence, but also the people who toiled in their houses and in their fields are interrelated. Tell us about your approach to doing this kind of investigating and who you put on your team.

Dr. JACKSON: Well, the work that we're doing in behalf of Dr. Kearse is - emanates from the African-American DNA Roots Project, which is a project done in partnership with Dr. Bert Ely of the University of South Carolina. And what we have been doing over the last seven years is to use DNA analysis to link blacks of the United States, of the Caribbean, of Latin South America to their ancestral groups in Africa using that technology.

Now with Dr. Kearse, it's suddenly different in that we have, you know, a well-established family lineage that we can link to another lineage - it being the European lineage - and so what we're doing here is just applying the techniques that we've used in the Roots Project for a number years to unraveling the connection between the African lineage of James Madison and the European lineage of his brothers. That sometimes entails making a genetic end-run in which we've done and - determining that who are James Madison's descendants who never came to the United States. And we think we've established that.

And so hopefully, over the next few months, we'll be able to identify those Madisons in England and hopefully, one in the United States where we can actually compare the Y-chromosomes, which if they are from James Madison should be identical.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Jackson, does this rely on consent? Are you going to have to find someone who consents to a test or are you using cadavers? How are you going to try to get this genetic material from the Madison family?

Dr. JACKSON: Oh you can't use the Y-chromosomes from long dead material. It's fully consensual. You have to have the consent of anybody who is receiving the DNA test. That's a pretty rigid law in the United States. So anybody who'd participates in this study, whether it be Dr. Kearse's family or any other potential member of the European branch must give us their consent.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Kearse, how much do you know about whether or not people from the, I guess, the established James Madison family are going to play ball? Where are you in the process of trying to reach people who could even give you this material?

Dr. KEARSE: Well, I have been in contact with former president of the National Association of Madison Family Descendants, as well as with other officers in the organization. And they have sent out newsletters to their members, requesting that someone come forth, who might be willing to participate in the DNA study. But there's only one or two men who actually meet our qualifications and thus far, neither of those men has come forth.

CHIDEYA: How would it feel to you if you walk this road and you do this research and in the end it's simply a matter of trust that someone else does not trust you with their genetic material or chooses not to make their family exposed? How would you feel about that?

Dr. KEARSE: I'm not sure I understand your question.

CHIDEYA: If they say no?

Dr. KEARSE: Well, if they say no, I have to respect that and I understand not wanting to be involved in a national controversy, but we would…

CHIDEYA: I want to - please go ahead.

Dr. KEARSE: No. I was just going to say, we would continue looking for other people. We do have a genealogist, who's working for us in England and though we still have other avenues to pursue.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Jackson, I understand that you're working with a team of students. How important is work like the work on Dr. Kearse's family? What are you hoping both to learn from it as a researcher but also to impart to future generations?

Dr. JACKSON: Well, you know, forensic DNA analysis is a relatively new field. It's actually not new in terms of methodology, actually. You know, some of the methodologies that we used to identify human beings with DNA, actually, have been around for many years. The application is new. The forensic DNA science program at MassBay Community College is the only - was (unintelligible) degree program in the world.

So our students have the great advantage of being involved and not only in criminal cases, but the anthropological cases, which really comprise most of forensic DNA analysis and used in the world. It dispels the myth that what you see on "CSI" is true. "CSI" is pretty much baloney. And the students recognize that DNA analysis is very, very sophisticated, very demanding, very intricate work that has to be done very carefully. And this is - you know, we have been working with Dr. Kearse, going on for years now. And this is pretty typical for a DNA study. Well, you cannot make any mistakes.

CHIDEYA: We're going to have leave it right there. I'm sorry. And we would love to follow up with you on this case. Dr. Jackson, Dr. Kearse, thank you so much.

Dr. KEARSE: You're welcome.

Dr. JACKSON: Thank you. You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Bettye Kearse is a pediatrician at Neponset Health Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts. And Dr. Bruce Jackson heads up the department of science and teaches biotechnology at Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Both guests joined me from NPR member station, WBUR.

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