African Americans often encounter roadblocks when attempting to trace their family lineage. Births, deaths, and marriages between enslaved Africans were rarely documented and poor record-keeping persisted well into the Jim Crow era. Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly was experiencing similar frustrations while researching her family history but found unexpected assistance from members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The women’s organization, which boasts members who are direct descendants of those who fought against British forces in the American Revolution, has long been criticized for excluding Blacks from membership, with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even renouncing her membership in protest of the group’s discriminatory practices. The group was founded in 1890 but did not welcome its first Black member until 1977. An estimated 5,000 Black soldiers fought on the American side of the Revolutionary War.
It appears that DAR has taken these criticisms to heart as they’ve recently elected Kelly as the first Black woman to head their national governing board. Kelly joined the organization in 2004 after following her family history to a white Virginian who donated supplies to the Revolutionary War efforts. She went on to found the group’s Queens chapter in New York and served as its regent until being granted her recent position as head of the national board.
The organization currently has around 185,000 members but does not ask for new members’ racial backgrounds, so there’s no official number on how diversity has grown. Kelly said she’s seen more non-white people join the group as genealogy becomes more popular.
DAR’s newly elected President Denise VanBuren told Stars and Stripes that, “We’ve had a real awakening here that we have an obligation to try and tell the stories of some of those folk who history has left out of the history books.”
Kelly is hopeful that her involvement with the group will encourage other Black women to explore their familial connections to the Revolutionary War.