African-American woman traces ancestry to family of Thomas Jefferson

The Washington Post

Reisha Raney’s role in Friday night’s Daughters of the American Revolution ceremony for the military was minor. She carried Virginia’s flag in a procession that walked down a carpeted aisle at Constitution Hall.

But for Raney, an African-American raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and a descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s nephew, it was one of the most pivotal moments in her life. Her place in the DAR, a predominantly white organization whose annual convention in Washington at DAR Constitution Hall ended Sunday, was proof of her extraordinary family history.

The group certified research that traced Raney’s roots to William Turpin, a patriot who fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. Turpin’s mother was Mary Jefferson, the aunt of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson.

Raney respects her ties to her famous ancestor, but he is not the reason the 39-year-old smiled like a beauty pageant contestant as she walked the halls of a group that at one time barred black people.

She was honoring Turpin’s son, Edwin — Thomas Jefferson’s second cousin — who purchased a slave, Mary, and married her in Canada. The two lived in neighboring houses on a plantation in Goochland County, Virginia. The houses were burned when word got out, but then were rebuilt, according to a family memoir.

Before his death in 1868, Edwin Turpin wrote in a will that the children he had with “my woman Mary” were to be free.

Raney, a systems engineer and mathematician with degrees from Spelman College and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, talks less about the third U.S. president than about the couple who intertwined her black family’s line with that of the Turpins. She is the leader of the Harmony Hall Chapter of the DAR in Fort Washington, Maryland, and is credited with saving it from being dissolved by recruiting younger women as older members passed away.

“I have no doubt in my mind she will move on to become a state officer or national officer” in the DAR, said Dorothy Weberling, 64, a former leader of the chapter who processed Raney’s application. “She’s just that smart.”

There is no doubting that Raney belongs, said Weberling, who is white: “The ladies who’ve accepted her are all college women. They have a greater understanding of history and what actually happened. What we’re bringing out into the open is that white men and black women did have relationships. It’s better to bring the secrets out.”

It is rare that black family history such as Raney’s is unearthed, traced and documented, historians said. It is rarer still when it is linked to a storied family with power, privilege and a celebrated legacy. Thomas Jefferson’s intimate relationship with his young slave, Sally Hemings, is one of a few.

Tens of thousands of blacks with fair complexions such as Raney can only guess at their origins because of the secrets that hid them, historians said — and because of records that were lost, burned or never searched.

It makes entry into groups such as the DAR harder for black women, said Darryn Lickliter, the group’s director of genealogy. The DAR, established in 1890 to recognize descendants of patriots who fought for American independence, uses rigorous genealogy searches to verify the claims of applicants.

Many years ago, the group took the added step of barring black women from its ranks. The group is still working to repair its reputation, which was marred decades ago after it blocked Marian Anderson, one of the world’s most famous opera singers, from performing at a 1939 concert at DAR Constitution Hall because she was black. Its highest-profile member, then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, quit in protest.

In the years since, the DAR apologized profusely and invited Anderson to perform at the hall several times before her death in 1993. It also opened the venue to numerous black entertainers.

Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly, 66, a genealogist and writer who joined the DAR nine years ago and became the first black woman to start a chapter last year, in Queens, New York City, said the group has changed. “Not everybody is going to hug you, but I’ve never felt discrimination in any way, I can honestly say that.”

The DAR is trying to strengthen its ties to nonwhite women in other ways. In the 1980s, it started Forgotten Patriots, a project that works to identify black and Native American men who fought in the Revolutionary War, so that descendants can more easily link to them.

The project sometimes shines a light on long-hidden relationships between slaveholders and slaves. The “DAR is trying to make its records accurate to show the true history of the situation,” said Eric Grundset, the group’s library director.

New England states have the best 18th-century records because “they used a lot of color descriptions,” he said.

Raney heard family members talk about links to Thomas Jefferson’s relatives but paid it little mind. A distant cousin in Louisiana, Odette Harper Hines, 100, provided an oral history, “All Is Never Said,” that detailed Edwin and Mary Turpin’s story as passed down by elderly family members, but Raney still didn’t quite believe.

In 2006, she watched “African American Lives,” a show in which Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. traced the histories of famous people. She called genealogy company African Ancestry to submit a DNA test, hoping to trace her origin “somewhere in Africa.”

A sequence of DNA tests placed her ancestors in Mali and other West African countries, but also contained a surprise — she was 30 percent European. Digging deeper, she spent thousands of dollars ordering more DNA tests for herself, her mother, Carolyn, and her father, Robert.

Her father’s result, which came in the middle of the DAR’s months-long process of certifying her family tree, “blew my mind,” Raney said — he was 64 percent European. “My dad,” she said, “was a white man.”

Raney said she identifies as black, but it is a complicated history. “I just feel like I always constantly have to explain myself to people who don’t understand why I joined DAR,” she said. She fingered pins on her chest that the DAR awarded for her service and the contributions of her ancestors: “I earned these,” she said.