A war without end: The DAR and the 40-year fight to honor Lena Ferguson

by Lee Pierre

When the Daughters of the American Revolution convened their annual Continental Congress in D.C. last week, 4,000 delegates representing 198,000 members showed up. It was one of the largest national meetings in DAR history.

   Denise VanBuren, DAR’s outgoing president-general said she noticed something else about the assembly, an apparent increase in women of color in their membership.

   “We don’t ask about race on our membership applications, so nobody knows how many people of color have joined our society,” said VanBuren. “I can only tell you anecdotally, when I first came to our Continental Congress in 1990 there were only a handful of women of color at best, and today there are scores of women of color in our building.”

   To VanBuren, the increasingly diverse membership, along with initiatives to identify and honor more Black patriots, helps fulfill the terms of an agreement struck 40 years ago to right an egregious racial wrong. Not the well-known wrong is done to Marian Anderson, the famous Black opera singer who was barred from performing at the DAR’s Constitution Hall in D.C. in 1939. Not the wrong is done to Hazel Scott, the famous Black pianist, who was barred from the hall in 1945. The wrong that really rocked the DAR out of its antebellum slumber occurred in 1983, when a little-known D.C. resident, a retired Black school secretary named Lena S. Ferguson, was denied membership in the DAR because of her race. In a city then led by two civil rights activists, David Clarke as chairman of the D.C. Council, and Marion Barry as mayor, the ensuing outrage was fierce. Under threat of having its tax-exempt status revoked, the DAR reversed the decision and, in 1984, granted Ferguson full membership.

   As a newly minted member, Ferguson opted not to file a racial discrimination lawsuit. Instead, she preferred a more diplomatic path, an agreement that the DAR would identify and honor more Black patriots, tell stories about the Revolutionary War that was more inclusive, 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 agreement,” VanBuren said. “We fully recognize the fact that she directed us on a path that has made us a more inclusive society.”

   Ferguson’s nephew Maurice Barboza, a lawyer living in Alexandria, VA, had encouraged his aunt to join the DAR after tracing the family ancestry back to the Revolutionary War. Forty years later, he’s still disgusted with how the DAR humiliated his aunt and continues to prod them to honor the agreement.

   “This notion that the DAR is changing is just lip service,” Barboza said. “They don’t track the race of DAR members, so how do they know if progress is really being made? They never really embraced the agreement. There was stalling and resistance from the beginning.”

   He wants the DAR to try harder to find all the Black patriots and track down their descendants also.

   VanBuren says that the DAR has already identified more than 6,000 patriots of color and that the search continues. The organization has created an African American lineage research task force and employs a professional researcher. There also are multiple 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 figments of her imagination. There is progress to be claimed. Ruth Hunt, formerly of Roanoke, is passionate about genealogy. In 1977 she was moved by the TV miniseries Roots, which centered on Kunta Kinte, an African man sold into slavery and followed all of his descendants through American history. It inspired Ruth to look back and discover her own ancestry.  

   Through research on her own family line, Ruth has discovered that she has relatives who have fought in every major American conflict, including her brother who served in Vietnam, and her father who fought in World War II. Her dedication to veterans led her to become chair of the veteran’s committee of the New York City Chapter. When she took on this role she saw the opportunity to combine her love of genealogy and her desire to serve veterans. 

   In January 2017, Ruth began monthly genealogical workshops with veterans at the Manhattan VA hospital. At that time, she had worked with more than 200 veterans to research their lineage and learn about their family history. Staff at the hospital believes her events are so well attended because there is a lack of intellectually stimulating programming for veterans. The workshops also tap into the innate human desire to know who you are. It’s wonderful to have volunteers come into the VA and perform songs or lead arts and crafts, but nothing is more inspiring than to learn where they come from and how their family history is woven into the fabric of America. It helps give their personal sacrifice context and meaning. 

   At her workshops, Ruth gives veterans a basic family tree to fill out. Many of the veterans have no knowledge of their family beyond their parents or grandparents. Some don’t even have that. Ruth shared the story of a veteran who explained that he didn’t know who his father was. With the help of her two assistants along with a recently donated library edition of Ancestry.com Ruth was able to help this veteran find his father that day in the workshop!

   “There’s nothing like that,” she said “It’s amazing. There’s nothing like hearing someone say, ‘Wow. I found my father.’”

   Ruth loves seeing the look on veterans’ faces when they discover that questions about their ancestry is attainable. She says it’s heartwarming to watch people discover not only information about their DNA, but the stories of their families who helped to build this nation, especially people of color, many of whom face tremendous challenges in uncovering their ancestral stories because slaves were not listed by name on any censuses prior to 1870. Most African American slaves before the 1860s were only named in slaveholders’ wills. “Slavery dehumanized a group of people who were forced to work for free only to enrich the lives of others. This continual terrorist act of slavery never took away their humanity and ability to achieve greatness,” said Ruth “I am passionate about helping my brothers and sisters find their lost ancestors who were forcefully separated during slavery through ‘Jim Crow’.”

   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 ever be named a state officer.

   A graduate of Spelman College and research fellow at Harvard, Raney is looking into the DAR’s racial history with an emphasis on finding the stories of Black women.

   “I think it’s important for me to collect these narratives to educate the public and society in general about how different the Daughters of the American Revolution is today compared to what they have been known for in the past,” Raney told USA Today. “It seems like they can’t shake that reputation no matter how many changes that they make or how many amends they make.”

   Karen Batchelor, who became the first Black female member of the DAR in 1977, said of Raney’s ascent to the DAR leadership, “It’s a great thing and shows the progress of this organization over the years.”

   In 2019, Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly became the head of the DAR’s New York operation and the first African American woman to sit on its national governing board. Even Ferguson acknowledged the change.

   Having become chairman and founder of the D.C. 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 and are trying to put a new face on the organization. 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 tenacity, for all the years spent trying to bring an elite White-women-only organization, founded in 1890, into the 21st century.

   Largely because of him and Ferguson, the DAR membership now includes Black women capable of carrying on her legacy.

      In June of this year, Ruth Hunt received a once-in-a-lifetime award of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Defense at the NSDAR Continental Congress in acknowledgment of her work with veterans. In addition to her workshops, Ruth has organized drives for toiletries and clothing to be donated to veterans. It’s her hope that someday soon she might be able to expand her genealogical workshops to other VA hospitals across the city and our nation sharing her passion with hundreds of others who long to discover their own roots.

   There’s another important task that requires an end to this 40-year war, however. In 1986, Ferguson and Barboza won congressional authorization to honor African Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War with a monument on the National Mall and raised enough money to fund a design but not enough to build the memorial.

   What better ally to have in that endeavor than the 198,000 members of the DAR?

   And in 2026, the nation will mark its 250th anniversary. A memorial to those forgotten Black patriots would sure be a nice touch!