The Daughters of the American Revolution attempt to right a racist wrong
“We don’t ask about race on our membership applications, so no one knows how many people of color have joined our society,” VanBuren said. “I can only tell you, anecdotally, that when I first came to our Continental Congress in 1990, there were only a handful, at best, of women of color, and today , there are dozens of women of color in our building.”
For VanBuren, the increasingly diverse membership, along with initiatives to identify and honor more black patriots, are helping to fulfill the terms of an agreement struck 40 years ago to right a blatant racial wrong.
Not the well-known wrong done to Marian Anderson, the famous black opera singer who was banned from performing at DAR’s Constitution Hall in DC It was in 1939. Not the wrong done to Hazel Scott, the famous pianist black, which was banned from the hall in 1945.
The wrong that really roused the DAR from its pre-war slumber occurred in 1983, when a little-known DC resident, a retired black school secretary named Lena S. Ferguson, denied membership in the DAR because of his race. In a city then ruled by two civil rights activists – David Clarke as DC Council chairman and Marion Barry as mayor – the ensuing outrage was fierce. Under threat of having his tax-exempt status revoked, the DAR reversed its decision and, in 1984, granted Ferguson full member status.
DAR admits Lena S. Ferguson to the organization
As a newly minted member, Ferguson chose not to file a racial discrimination complaint. Instead, she preferred a more diplomatic route — an agreement that DAR would identify and honor more black patriots, tell more inclusive Revolutionary War stories, and make the organization more welcoming to women of color. .
“I think you’ll be impressed with the work we’ve done in large part because of the Lena Ferguson deal,” VanBuren said. “We fully recognize the fact that she has led us down a path that has made us a more inclusive society.”
Enter Maurice Barboza, Ferguson’s nephew. A lawyer living in Alexandria, Barboza had encouraged his aunt to join the DAR after tracing family ancestry back to the War of Independence. Forty years later, he is still disgusted with how the DAR humiliated his aunt and continues to push them to honor the deal.
“This idea that the DAR is changing is just lip service,” Barboza said. “They don’t follow the run of DAR members, so how do they know if progress is really being made? They never really bought into the deal. There was stalling and resistance from the start.
He wants the DAR to put more effort into finding all black patriots and tracing their descendants as well.
VanBuren says the DAR has already identified more than 6,000 Patriots of Color and the search is ongoing. The organization has established an African American Lineage Research Task Force and employs a professional researcher. There are also several databases on the DAR website that prospective members can use to trace family heritage.
“We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” VanBuren said. “And because we want their descendants to join the DAR.”
The new faces around the DAR are not a figment of his imagination. There is progress to be made.
In 2018, Reisha Raney, a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson’s aunt, became the first black officer in the DAR’s Maryland branch and one of only four black people to be appointed as a state officer.
A complicated family history places a black woman from Maryland in the ranks of the DAR
A graduate of Spelman College and a researcher at Harvard, Raney studies the racial history of DAR with a focus on researching stories of black women.
“I think it’s important to me to bring these stories together to educate the public and society at large about the difference between the Daughters of the American Revolution today and what they were known for in the past,” said Raney at USA Today. “It seems like they can’t shake that reputation no matter how many changes they make and how many changes they make.”
Karen Bachelor, who became the first black female member of the DAR in 1977, said of Raney’s rise to the leadership of the DAR: “It’s a good thing and shows the progress of this organization over the years. .”
In 2019, Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly became DAR’s chief operating officer in New York and the first African-American woman to serve on its national board of directors.
Even Ferguson recognized the change.
Becoming president and founder of the DC DAR Scholarship Committee, with two scholarships awarded in her name, Ferguson told the Washington Post in 1996: “I think they [the DAR] are more sincere now. I think they are trying to give the organization a new face. They do a lot of good work.
Ferguson died in 2004, the same year Wilhelmena Kelly joined the New York DAR.
Barboza certainly deserves credit for her tenacity, for all the years spent trying to bring an elite white women-only organization, founded in 1890, into the 21st century.
Largely thanks to him and Ferguson, DAR membership now includes black women who can carry on his legacy.
In addition, there is another important task which necessitates the end of this 40-year war. In 1986, Ferguson and Barboza won congressional permission to honor African Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War with a monument on the National Mall. They raised enough money to fund a design, but not enough to build the memorial.
What better ally to have in this endeavor than the 198,000 members of the DAR?
In 2026, just four years from now, the nation will celebrate its 250th anniversary. A memorial to these forgotten black patriots would definitely be a good idea.