Meet Bettye Kearse
According to the oral history passed down through eight generations of her family, Dr. Bettye Kearse is a descendant of the enslaved cook Coreen and her enslaver, and half- brother, President James Madison.
Dr. Kearse’s book The Other Madisons: The Lost History of A President’s Black Family. This award-winning memoir reveals what it means to be an African American descendant of a slaveholding president and how that meaning evolved over eight generations of her family.
THE OTHER MADISONS
For thousands of years, generations of West African griottes (women) and griots (men) have spoken the history of their people and the stories of their ancestors, and when Africans were kidnapped and enslaved, they did not leave their tradition of oral history behind.
My family’s first African ancestor in America, and our first griotte, was a stolen woman called Mandy. The story Mandy passed down was that she had been stolen from the shore near her village in Ghana, carried across the ocean in the bowels of a wretched ship, shoved onto an auction block, sold, put to work on a big tobacco farm, and then raped by her enslaver, James Madison Sr.
A baby girl was born through those forced encounters: Coreen.
Several years earlier, in 1751, James Sr.’s wife, Nelly, had given birth to a son: James Jr.
Thus, the child born through rape, destined to live entrapped in slavery, and the child born through marriage, destined to become president of a new nation, were half-siblings.
Around 1792, according to the history told by my family’s griottes and griots, Madison became attracted to Coreen, by then a cook known for her apple pies. That attraction led to the birth of a son, my great-great-great-grandfather Jim.
Shortly after the end of the War of 1812, Dolley Madison, having learned that Jim and one of her nieces were in love, sold Jim. His father stood by and watched. As Jim was being taken away, Coreen, my family’s second griotte, pleaded with Jim, “Always remember—You’re a Madison.” She believed the name could help them find each other, someday.
But they never saw each other again.
Jim, our third griot, ended up in Tennessee but never forgot his mother’s words, and as he passed them on to his children and told them to tell their children they were Madisons, Coreen’s plea became my family’s credo. Over the generations, as America changed, the credo changed. After my enslaved ancestors learned freed, the name could be more than a tool to find torn-away loved ones; now, it could also serve as a source of inspiration. Jim’s son Emanuel, my great-great-grandfather, taught his children to be proud their name had come from a president and to make the most of that legacy, now that they had the chance. Emanuel, our fourth griot, changed the credo to: “Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from a president.”
According to various records, Emanuel and his wife, Elizabeth, had some fourteen children, but only eight, all males, appear on the 1860 census. The fate of the others is unknown. One of the eight was my great-grandfather Mack, our fifth griot.
The youngest of Mack’s three sons was John Chester, my grandfather, who was born free. He was proud that his father, grandfather, and other enslaved ancestors had overcome enslavement. He wanted his children to know that enslaved people were remarkable individuals who possessed inner strength and a sense of hope, by which they survived and many talents, by which they contributed mightily to America. John Chester, my family’s sixth griot added two important words to the credo. It became “Always remember—you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” So, for the last 100 years, the credo has reminded us that we aren’t just descendants of a president; we are descendants of enslaved people too.
In 1990, my mother, our seventh griotte, turned over to me the old cardboard box of family memorabilia, making me the eighth griotte. I decided to try to find my ancestors who had lived the evolution of the credo.
My grandfather was easy to find. The box of family memorabilia contained newspaper clippings about his tenure as a school principal in Elgin, Texas, and several photos and letters. The box also held evidence of my great-grandfather Mack’s life, including land deeds. I saw my great-great-grandfather Emanuel’s name on an 1834 bill of sale when his enslaver purchased a wife for Emanuel. I found Coreen’s when I walked, literally, in her footsteps as I followed a path of bare soil that stretched between the rear of the Madison mansion to the kitchen some seventy feet away. And I knew I had found Mandy when I knelt beside a crude headstone nestled at the base of a tree in Montpelier’s slave cemetery.
But I could not find Jim. So, I joined forces with two of my cousins. We knew that by the 1820s, Jim’s son Emanuel lived in Tennessee as the property of Jeptha Billingsley. When my cousins found documentation of an emancipated black man named Shadrack Madison, we were excited. A possible lead to Jim had emerged: Shadrack had gained his freedom from Jeptha’s father, Samuel Billingsley.
The next lead came from Montpelier: Jim, according to our oral history, was born on the plantation around 1792. Shadrack, according to census data, was born in Virginia that same year. Montpelier records from 1782 to 1786 list the name Shadrack among property inventories and on an 1887 list of shoe sizes for enslaved people. It is possible the younger emancipated man was the namesake of the older enslaved man.
Another step toward finding Jim came from Gibson County, Tennessee. Tax records show that in the 1820s and 30s, Jeptha Billingsley owned one taxable slave, whose name, Manuel (Emanuel) was revealed when Jeptha purchased a wife for that enslaved man. Meanwhile, in 1828, Shadrack, after living in Bledsoe County for at least the prior eleven years and having just purchased land there, sold the land and moved to Gibson County.
The year 1848 was a turning point for both men. That year, Emanuel and his family were relocated to Texas. Also that year, Shadrack sold his land in Gibson County and by 1850 resided in Illinois. Shadrack had been a free man in a slave state for more than thirty years; now, he no longer felt compelled to stay. Perhaps he had moved to Gibson County in 1828 in order to live near Emanuel and his family. But now they were gone. It seems that either Shadrack did not know their whereabouts or chose not to uproot for life in another slave state.
The final, and most significant, clue that there was a close connection between Emanuel and Shadrack is their surname: When they were emancipated—Shadrack by a document recorded in 1817 and Emanuel by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863—neither man took their enslaver’s last name: Billingsley. Instead, both took the name I believe was chosen to honor their family credo: Madison.
Could it be that Shadrack Madison was Emanuel Madison’s father and Coreen’s son? Could it be that Shadrack was my family’s long-lost Jim?