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A colorblind D.A.R.

July 20, 2012

Below, a cheering article published on the Fourth of July. Why should anyone with enthusiasm and respect for her family’s contribution to the founding of this country be denied membership in an organization devoted to the same?


Ms. Kelly and Dr. Cousins.

For Daughters of the American Revolution, a New Chapter

By SARAH MASLIN NIR
Published on page A1 of The New York Times on July 4, 2012.

Olivia Cousins can trace her family in the United States to a soldier who joined the rebelling colonists when he was just 17. But when a friend suggested she join the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization whose members can prove they are related to someone who aided the rebels in 1776, Dr. Cousins nearly laughed.

Dr. Cousins is black. And the D.A.R., as it is commonly called, is a historically white organization with a record of excluding blacks so ugly that Eleanor Roosevelt renounced her membership in protest.

Yet last week, in a circa-1857 stone chapel in Jamaica, Queens, Dr. Cousins was named an officer in a small ceremony establishing a new chapter. Her daughter took photos. The pictures documented a singular moment for the D.A.R., founded in 1890: 5 of the 13 members of the new chapter are black.

Perhaps more strikingly, the Queens chapter is one of the first in the organization’s nearly 122-year history that was started by a black woman: Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly, from Rosedale, who is also its regent, or president. Ms. Kelly traces her origins to the relationship between a slaveholder and a slave, who appear to have considered themselves married, and her new position is part of a remarkable journey for both her family and the organization.

“My parents understood that they were Americans and that they were a real important part of the American story,” said Dr. Cousins, who, like the other members, is a passionate student of genealogy. Her Revolutionary War ancestor was a free man of mixed race. “Their whole thing was that segregation is unacceptable,” she said of her parents. For her, she said, “de facto segregation was unacceptable.”

Racism and the vicissitudes of history have long kept the number of minorities in the D.A.R. low. Only about 5,000 of the nearly 400,000 American soldiers in the Revolution were black, said Eric Grundset, director of the organization’s library. Some were freed slaves who joined voluntarily, others slaves who bartered their service against promises of earning their freedom (which were often reneged on), and others sent to fight in place of the men who owned them.

“To the best of my knowledge, we have never had both an African-American charter regent as well as this percentage of members,” said Denise Doring VanBuren, the organization’s New York regent, who presides over the 7,000 members in the state.

Dr. Cousins, a professor of medical sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College, joined the group with two of her sisters, who are both substitute teachers: Collette Cousins, who lives in Durham, N.C., and Michelle Wherry, who lives in Lewis Center, Ohio. They will commute to the monthly meetings in Queens.

Ms. VanBuren said the D.A.R. tried in recent decades to attract members of diverse backgrounds.

In doing so, it had to overcome as many decades of bad press.

“Because of their reputation, they are probably not going to attract very many African-Americans,” said Raymond Arsenault, a professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and a civil-rights historian. “So this is quite striking that this is happening.”

Dr. Arsenault is the author of “The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial and the Concert That Awakened America,” a book that chronicles the episode that stamped the D.A.R. at the time as racist. In 1939, the group barred Anderson, a world-famous black contralto, from performing in its Constitution Hall in Washington, prompting Eleanor Roosevelt, then the first lady, to renounce her membership, and fomenting a national conversation about race.

“In the context of the Marian Anderson story and its complicated legacy, it seems like something of a milestone,” Dr. Arsenault said of the Queens chapter.

Dr. Cousins said, “When most African-Americans hear about the D.A.R., we go straight to Marian Anderson, and we get stuck there.”

Nevertheless, joining was “a no-brainer,” she said. “I’m a part of this country, and my presence needs to be recognized.”

The group does not know how many of its 170,000 members are black because it does not ask applicants for their race, Ms. VanBuren said. As well as focusing on history and genealogy, the D.A.R. offers scholarships, literacy education and assistance with the naturalization process for new citizens, among other things.

For the past 12 years, Mr. Grundset has led a research team dedicated to identifying black Patriots. Ms. Kelly, the founder of the Queens chapter, can trace her heritage to the relationship between a slaveholder and a slave, but since such unions were seldom recorded, few blacks may be able to link their family trees to the Revolution as she has.

High numbers of black D.A.R. members “will remain an anomaly,” Dr. Arsenault said, “ just by sheer demographics.”

The first black woman in modern times joined in 1977: Karen Batchelor, from Detroit, whose membership was considered such big news that she was featured on “Good Morning America.” (Before her, a woman of American Indian and black descent joined in the 1890s.)

But as late as 1984, there were still echoes of the Anderson episode when a Washington chapter resisted admitting Lena S. Ferguson, a former school secretary.

As part of a settlement with Ms. Ferguson, who died in 2004, the group rewrote its bylaws to state expressly that it was open to all types of women. Today, some promotional literature even features a photograph of a black member: Ms. Kelly’s niece.

“Things have changed a great deal,” Ms. Ferguson’s nephew, Maurice Barboza, said. “A large part of the change in the D.A.R. was caused by my aunt, because she took a stand.”

He said the Queens group proved that “not only would black women be able to discover their Revolutionary War heritage, but they would be at some point in time eager to join the D.A.R. and honor their heritage.”

The organization published a second edition of a book called “Forgotten Patriots” in 2008 to document the roughly 6,600 black, Indian and mixed-race Patriots, whose names a team of D.A.R. genealogists culled by cross-referencing military rolls with census records moldering in library reference rooms from Providence, R.I., to Albany.

Though progress has been slow, black people have also made inroads in other, similar organizations.

In 2010, Michael Nolden Henderson, a retired lieutenant commander in the United States Navy, became the first black member in Georgia of the Sons of the American Revolution. He became president of his chapter last year. “Historically, both these groups have not reached out to bring in members of color,” Mr. Henderson said. But, he added, “You can work from the inside to help improve the minority numbers.”

Last weekend, Ms. Kelly attended the Continental Congress, a yearly gathering of D.A.R. leaders in Washington. David H. Petraeus, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was the keynote speaker.

Few in the audience at Constitution Hall were black, but nearly all, like Ms. Kelly, were amateur genealogists.

“Their goals are my goals,” she said. “They are welcoming, they are committed to remembering these people, and as a woman of color, why not join the D.A.R.? Why not make our presence felt?”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. max permalink
    July 22, 2012 5:27 pm

    great articles- thanks for sharing.
    max

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