It's been four years since Bettye Kearse set out to prove a story that has been handed down through generations of her family: that she, an African American, is a direct descendant of founding father James Madison.
But after a prolonged attempt to arrange DNA testing with Madison family descendants in the United States, the two sides have been unable to agree on how to do it. And as Madison's sprawling Virginia estate, Montpelier, prepares to celebrate the completion of a $24 million restoration next month, aimed at shedding light on the former president's private life, Kearse could still be years from answers.
According to stories told by Kearse's family, Madison fathered a child named Jim with her great-great-great-great-grandmother, a slave cook named Coreen. Kearse, 65, has no documentation to bolster the claim, so in 2004, she enlisted the help of geneticist Bruce Jackson to investigate.
Jackson, co-director of the Roots Project at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, which helps African Americans trace their genetic histories, said the Madison family has been uncooperative with Kearse's efforts, imposing undue preconditions before they would allow a test. He likened the situation to the now-infamous controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, in which Jefferson's white descendants resisted claims that they were related to Hemings's family.
The Madisons "were neither sincere nor forthcoming in this effort, so we're not going to bother with them anymore," Jackson said. "If Bettye Kearse were white and wealthy, they would have no problem with this. But she's not. . . . She's a prominent physician . . . but she happens to be the wrong hue. It's the same thing as the Jeffersons."
Kearse, a Massachusetts pediatrician who is trying to publish a book on her family history, is reluctant to criticize the Madisons. She said she is not angry at the family, just disappointed, and can even empathize with their position.
"I can understand why his recognized descendants, i.e. white descendants, could have . . . resistance to becoming involved in a kind of contentious debate," Kearse said. "And, I also understand they would want to protect his legacy, his image, throughout history."
Frederick M. Smith, president of the National Society of Madison Family Descendants and a descendant of Madison's great-grandparents, declined to comment on Kearse's case, citing confidentiality concerns.
"It would be inappropriate for me to make any comment on any individual case or claim," Smith said. "We wanted to keep it absolutely confidential. We don't want to influence the outcome of any result."
He said his society has received several claims of family ties to the president over the years and those wishing to test their DNA against that of a Madison family descendant can do so through an online genetic testing service, a method he called objective and without racial bias. Jackson said that approach is scientifically flawed.
The case illustrates the tensions that can develop over issues of ancestry, especially when a prominent figure's reputation is at stake. In the case of Jefferson, rumors of his affair with Hemings swirled even during his lifetime. Despite genetic evidence that has linked Hemings's line to Jefferson's family, and documentary evidence that historians say points to Jefferson as the father, there are still some who deny the link.
Madison never had children with his wife, Dolley, so Jackson's plan is to compare the Y chromosomes, which are identical across generations, of male descendants in Madison's family to those of some of Kearse's male cousins. If the samples match, it would still be necessary to supplement the test with historical evidence to show that Madison was the father, Jackson said.
Jackson's partner in the search, geneticist Jamie Wilson, said the Madison society told Kearse that no suitable descendants were willing to come forward for a test. They eventually suggested that a third party, Family Tree DNA, be used to compare Kearse's family's DNA to DNA that an anonymous Madison descendant submitted to the company, Wilson said.
But Jackson said that without full access to the participants on both sides, there was no way to verify, genetically or historically, whether the so-called Madison DNA being used for the test would be valid. If the test came back negative, he said, it would prove nothing, but Kearse's claim might still be dismissed as false.
"You [can] get a DNA profile from Joe Schmo, and say he may be a Madison," Jackson said. "We owe it to Bettye Kearse to be more careful than that."
Smith said a descendant of Madison's younger brother, William, had submitted DNA to the company's database, but he declined to disclose the man's name.
Kearse's oral history begins with a kidnapped African slave, Mandy, who Kearse believes was impregnated at Montpelier by Madison's father, James Madison Sr. Their child, Coreen, later gave birth to Madison Jr.'s child, whom she named James Madison.