Who’s a Daughter of the American Revolution? Answer grows more diverse.

At a time in which American history has been deeply politicized and distorted, the Daughters of the American Revolution seems to be committed to not only expanding the nation’s knowledge of the Revolutionary War but also to shedding the stigma of being a white Anglo-Saxon organisation.

For decades after its founding in 1890, however, that stereotype seemed true. It was not often acknowledged that Americans of color had ancestors who contributed to the independence movement.

Why This

Was Written

Over the last 40 years, the Daughters of the American Revolution has broadened its membership and historical research. These changes may provide lessons that can be used to give a better and more inclusive picture of U.S. History in general.

Then, the first Black member of the modern DAR joined in 1977, and in 1984, the organization explicitly banned discrimination on “the basis of race or creed” after a Black applicant named Lena S. Ferguson was denied membership by a Washington, D.C., chapter. The group now has approximately 190,000 members, and Black Daughters say it’s easy to find people who look like them at big DAR events.

Furthermore, members’ research keeps surfacing a diverse group of patriots. One woman has been exploring Mexican patriots, while new Daughters of the Cane River Creole Community in Louisiana are joining.

According to Denise Doring VanBuren (DAR President), the DAR has two major tasks today. One, to honor patriots who have died and two, to find patriots of color to share their stories.

Michelle Wherry didn’t join the Daughters of the American Revolution to make a political statement. Michelle Wherry joined the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to honour her mother. She always believed it was an honor and a way to remember her.

In the decade since, Mrs. Wherry’s DAR activities have received national attention, in large part because she and many of her friends in the organization don’t fit a stereotype long associated with the 131-year-old society for people whose ancestors helped America achieve independence. When you think of DAR you tend to think about Anglo-Saxon Protestants, white people,” says Mrs. Wherry. And here are women who are not DAR. But they very much are.”

That’s more true now than ever. DAR’s membership has grown every year since 2007; it now has approximately 190,000 members throughout the United States and around the world. DAR does not have any data about members’ ethnicity. However, Black Daughters claim that it is easy for them to meet people similar to themselves at their annual Continental Congress or state events.

Why This

Was Written

Over the last 40 years, the Daughters of the American Revolution has broadened its membership and historical research. These changes may provide lessons that can be used to give a better and more inclusive picture of U.S. History in general.

At a time in which American history has been deeply politicized and is being questioned, DAR appears to be committed to not only shaking off its WASPy image but to also expanding our understanding of the Revolutionary War’s participants. DAR’s diversity and ongoing preservation work could offer a model for thinking about America’s history and help us see a new side to patriotism. One that is open-minded and willing to dig deeper into our shared past.

“Patriotism is taking an active role in making sure your country is portrayed in a truthful and honest and positive light,” says Nikki Williams Sebastian, a genealogist who joined DAR in 2014. Truthfulness is not necessarily a negative thing. History is not complete without documentation. And we have a lot of mythology in this country.”

In a move away from mythology, leaders created the E Pluribus Unum Education Initiative in 2020, which seeks to identify and promote patriots who’ve been left out of the popular historical narrative. This project includes the Patriots of Color database as well as an exhibition entitled “Remembrance of Noble Actions : African Americans and Native Americans during the Revolutionary War .”

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Contralto Marian Anderson performs for a crowd of thousands from the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, after she was refused permission to perform in Constitution Hall by the hall’s owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution. Among the dignitaries seated were Cabinet Secretaries and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. This event attracted attention to discrimination issues.

Earning its reputation

The DAR was founded in 1890, after the Sons of the American Revolution refused to allow women to join its ranks. Initial recruits included more than 700 “Real Daughters” whose fathers had fought in the American Revolution, and members were eager to promote historical preservation, education, and patriotism. In its early years, DAR served as a way to differentiate members from immigrant communities entering their towns.

“Those 1920s immigration restrictions had a real racist dimension to them,” says Francesca Morgan, author of “A Nation of Descendants” and an associate professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University. “So the ability to document yourself that far back and to claim a patriotic mantle at the same time had tremendous appeal.”

DAR “veered between civic and ethnic nationalism,” says Simon Wendt, an associate professor of American studies at Goethe University Frankfurt and author of “The Daughters of the American Revolution and Patriotic Memory in the Twentieth Century.” They were also an overtly political organization, he adds.

“They branded immigration a threat to the nation and rejected the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Professor Wendt. “These things are very much in line with mainstream conservative thinking in the 20th century.”

In the later half of the century, Congress tightened laws limiting the political activities of nonprofits. Some DAR members began to challenge racism in the DAR. The first Black member of the modern DAR joined in 1977, and in 1984, the organization had to rewrite its bylaws to explicitly ban discrimination on “the basis of race or creed” after a Black applicant named Lena S. Ferguson was denied membership by a Washington, D.C., chapter.

In recent years, the national organization has largely stayed out of conversations that could be deemed political, including debates over monuments of colonial figures or the 1619 Project.

Last summer, amid movements across the country promoting racial and socioeconomic justice, the National Society released a statement reaffirming the organization’s commitment to equality. This short message states, in part: “We know history is important for understanding our long struggle to ensure equality, justice, and human rights for all Americans.” … Bias, prejudice and intolerance have no place in the DAR or America.”

On a national level, President Denise Doring VanBuren says the DAR has two important jobs today: to continue honoring known patriots – “warts and all” – and to do a better job finding patriots of color and sharing their stories.

” “We, as descendants of these patriots, have to speak for them and preserve the legacy of their achievements on behalf of the nation,” she states. “We’re kind of the human bridge between the patriots of the American Revolution and the generations that will follow.”

Family and country

Many DAR journeys begin with a desire to iron out a family tree. Although it is not an easy task to receive a stamp from DAR’s genealogical board, some people find that this validation drives them to do hours and hours of research.

Mrs. Wherry’s involvement with DAR has provided “great memories” of collaborating with her sisters, she says, one of whom died in 2019. Her participation reflects her desire to correct the historical record. When she had the opportunity to purchase a tree along a trail in Valley Forge National Historical Park as part of DAR’s Pathway of the Patriots campaign, she wanted it to stand for more than Ezekiel Gomer, her sixth great-grandfather who’d joined the rebellion in 1777. Instead, she dedicated her tree to all the “men, women and children of African heritage who were part of the American Revolution,” including individuals like Sally St. Clair, who disguised herself as a man to join the Continental Army.

Mrs. Sebastian is a genealogist who shares the same sense of duty. More than 5,000 Black men, free and enslaved, served in the Continental Army, often for much longer periods than their white counterparts. She says, “I want everybody to remember Black history as American history.” However, Mrs. Sebastian was a DAR-eligible patriot and her family’s story, like many Black Daughters, involves an forced marriage between an enslaved female and her owners.

Rethinking the Revolution

Edward Barrett, a plantation owner from North Carolina, was already in the DAR’s patriot database when Mrs. Sebastian started investigating her family’s history, she explains in an episode of the “Daughter Dialogues.” Mrs. Sebastian’s family used DNA testing to prove they were related to Barrett through Ellen Johnson-Mathews-Fisher, who was enslaved by Barrett’s grandson and bore his children during the 1860s.

Stories like Mrs. Sebastian’s highlight the importance of more inclusive membership policies. To prove their descent, potential members had to be married legally at one point, says Mrs. Sebastian. This was difficult for families such as hers.

Yvonne Liser (DAR’s national chair for membership), says that the best way to increase member diversity is by simply learning about the American Revolution. She says that one Daughter is currently researching Bernardo de Galvez’s expedition papers and looking for potential Daughters in Mexico. Louisiana welcomed a new wave of Daughters recently from the Cane River Creole Community. They are all descendants from Marie Therese Coincoin and Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, a French patriot who were freed from slavery. This research goes beyond expanding DAR membership and shedding remnants of ethnic nationalist DAR roots. DAR is one of the most well-known and oldest lineage societies focused on preserving the Revolutionary War. Members believe that DAR can help to change the nation’s view of its origins.

“The leaders recognize that we have a responsibility to share these stories [with everyone],”, says Mrs. Sebastian. “Because it’s an enriching story .”

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