Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why I, a Young Woman of Color, Joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)

Late in October I received a phone call from a strange number. Now I usually don't answer calls from numbers I don't recognize, but for some reason I answered. I am so happy I did. It was Wilhelmina Kelly, founding regent of the Increase Carpenter Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
She is so classy
We had been exchanging emails off and on since June when I finally applied for DAR. I had always told myself that if I applied to the DAR I wanted to join her chapter since there are several other black members. I figured that if I was going to join a historically white and, well remembered for being racist organization, then I should make it a little easier on myself by joining a chapter with at least one other black member. I guessed that the women in this chapter might be open and supportive of my application. They may also be more helpful with my struggle to get in since they had already gotten over their own historical and racial hurdles.  Increase Carpenter has four black members that I know of.

As I had hoped Ms. Kelly was very excited about my application and quickly set to work trying to help me negotiate the paperwork process and find all of the proof I needed. Then magically 5 months later DAR's membership committee approved my ancestry! I was in! I couldn't believe it. It takes some women years to find just the right ancestral line. I got in on my first try using a family line I had not even known had actually existed a few months earlier.

I used my Fortson line:
ME - My mother Rachel - grandmother Willie Mae Hall Strickland - great grandfather Johnny "Fox" Hall - great great grandmother Martha Fortson Hall - great great great grandfather William Easton Fortson (white former slave owner who lived with his former slave Mertis Thomas and fathered all 16 of her children) - great great great great grandmother Nancy Ham - great great great great great grandfather John Ham - great great great great great great (6x) grandfather Stephen Ham. Nancy's mother also connects me to another soldier Richard Gatewood.
To find out more about William Fortson, Mertis Thomas and their families please see this blog post Love Across the Battle Lines

Why would a black woman want to join the Daughters of the American Revolution after they publicly excluded black women for almost 70 years?

I get that question a lot, mostly from people of color and others who know about DAR's checkered past.

My answer? Because I have done the research and traced my line to multiple Revolutionary War soldiers. Therefore they have no reason to exclude me. I'm no James Meredith and there were no blue haired old ladies with nooses and colonial era ball gowns trying to chase me away from the archives. DAR has changed quite a bit in the last decade or so. Thanks in great part to some of its earliest black members and their many white allies - women like Wilhelmina Kelly and Olivia Cousins and many others who are passionate and dedicated to OUR shared history as Americans.

For Daughters of the American Revolution, a New Chapter

 I personally like the idea of joining and hopefully helping to change an organization that I am qualified to be a member of, and that is even though they may have in the past rejected me because of my color. Why apply for Harvard or work at the Smithsonian? Just because they did not want us in the past does not mean we should not try to make change and then use the organization/institution/company to make our lives and the lives of others better.

For me DAR is also about the network. A strong genealogy network! It's like getting into a sorority only I don't have to worry about an elderly lady paddling me or making me eat dry oatmeal and walk in a triangle. My initiation ceremony involved hours spent squinting at some 19th century clerks awful handwriting or staring bleary-eyed at 4am at my laptop screen reading document after document until I had my answers…or were they just more questions? (oh crap I just lost another 3 hours I should have been putting toward my archaeology course's reading assignment).

I will be making my re-entry into the full time work world in the next 5 months and I know from experience that it is not what you know but who you know. Being a DAR member, especially as a woman of color, may give me a few bonus points when I apply to genealogy and research jobs. I like to think that this connection helps prove how passionate and dedicated I am to genealogy. When I went back to my internship at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and told the lunch room regulars that I had finally made it in, their jaws dropped. There were a few young white women who had been trying to get in and failing for months. They seemed both surprised and in awe. I figure, if I can get in, then so can they, and so can many women of color looking for a means of reifying their family's long history in this country. Now that DNA is acceptable as evidence we all have an even easier pathway in to this historic organization.

Yesterday, I got up at 5 am after getting home from a salsa concert at 2 am to get on a bus to New York. In one of those random YOLO moments. I figured I might as well make the trek back to my favorite city to attend my first DAR meeting. Some how magically despite my printer not working and the bus being over loaded, oh and then there was the part about it snowing, I made it to Queens.

We met at a restaurant called Brooks 1890. As a pretty much life-time member of the National Alumnae Association of Spelman College - Columbia, MD Chapter, I knew how this whole thing would go. We read minutes, said a few prayers, did the pledge of allegiance to the flag (mmmh I've protested that since middle school so I was hesitating on that) and then jumped into business. There was a history moment and then the ladies were invited to share photos and quick stories about the veterans in their lives/histories. Since I have all my research online I was able to share photos of my great uncle Alphonsa "Fuz" Cook who served during the Korean war as a cook in the Navy. I also spoke on my Confederate veteran ancestor and the many questions I wish I could ask him.

I spent most of the meeting chatting with a young woman named Charlene. We connected instantly since we are both studying some of the most heartbreaking and difficult segments of Black America's history. I'm studying slavery and she is focusing on the American prison system, convict leasing and the rampant lynching of black military veterans in uniform. Whew! Talk about commiseration! I'm not sure anyone else wanted to join our conversation. It was wonderful though! It is always great to find a kindred spirit. We connected through email and Linked In, traded book titles, authors, scholars and info. She is even interested in joining the African American Genealogy Book Club I am co leading on LinkedIn! Very happy to have finally gotten a chance to meet her and the rest of the members who came out despite the snow. We had a wonderful time. Cannot wait for the next meeting in February.

Ok ladies! I'm ready. Pin me!

Any thoughts on whether I should attempt to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy? Colonial Dames?