Daughters of the American Revolution, or the DAR, is a non-profit women’s lineage organization founded in 1890, with 170,000 current members. There are over 3,000 chapters across the United States and the world, and new members are inducted all the time.
So why did it make the front page of the Regional section of The New York Times last summer, when BMCC professor of health education and ethnic studies Olivia Cousins was ceremonially welcomed as an officer into a DAR chapter in Queens?
The changing face of the DAR
That ceremony, says Professor Cousins, “was an unusual event in the life of the Daughters of the American Revolution not only because of who I am and what I look like, but because of the organization’s history.”
The DAR chapter Cousins belongs to was co-founded by Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly, “and what is unique is that she is of African descent,” Cousins explains. Out of the 13 women in that chapter, five are women of color, including Olivia Cousins and her sisters Michelle Wherry and Collette Cousins.
The DAR’s commitment to diversity was set into motion in 1939, when the organization barred opera singer Marian Anderson from performing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because of her race.
Eleanor Roosevelt publically resigned her membership in the DAR, in protest, and the organization moved toward the non-discriminatory policy it holds today, by inviting Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall in 1943 for a war relief concert, and for numerous concerts after that.
Locating the Patriots
Today, the DAR admits any woman 18 years or older—regardless of race, religion or ethnic background—as long as she can prove descent from a Patriot of the American Revolution.
“It’s a lineage organization,” Professor Cousins explains, “which means the women who belong to this organization had ancestors who did some type of service within the American Revolution.” They might not have fought as soldiers, she says.“They may have supported the revolution by doing things like providing food or work.”
The DAR provides free access to genealogical records assisting those who want to locate their Patriot ancestor. The organization also provides citizenship education, and over $150,000 in academic scholarships every year, including awards earmarked for students of American Indian descent.
Timing is everything
“As a woman of African descent, the way in which we were brought over to this country, for most of us, was through enslavement,” says Professor Cousins, “and the timing of when that kidnapping and enslavement occurred becomes key. For me, for my ancestors, it occurred early.”
By early, says Cousins, “we’re talking about the late 1600s,” adding that her family lived in Massachusetts, “where enslavement ended early.”
One of her ancestors, she explains, “wound up in a farming area known as Pittsfield, Massachusetts and set down roots. He married into Native American and Narragansett Indian relations, and there were also white relations.”
A child of these ancestors “was a young boy child named Ezekiel Gomer, and at the age of 17 he went to fight with a unit close to Pittsfield,” says Cousins, who found documentation “of when he was mustered in, and when he was mustered out, and the timing was off and on for about two years."
Genealogy: Finding where you fit in
Genealogy, Cousins explains, “is the history of where you fit personally. Along that road you’re paying attention to what those ancestors were doing, and the ways in which their lives impacted on your life.”
She sums it up like this: “Because they were, I am,” adding that “as a family, we’re only halfway there in our research. There are people who fought on both sides.”
On her mother’s side, there is Ezekiel Gomer, “but on my father’s side,” she says, “is Francis Cousins, who also fought in the Revolutionary War. So the work now is to prove the genealogical lineage there.”
The DAR requirements in proving lineage focus on documentation.
“You have to be able to produce birth certificates,” she says, “and as a person of African American descent, the ability to be able to have the birth certificate of an ancestor that was born in the 1600s, 1700s, is not easy.”
In her words, it takes “detective work,” and following leads provided by a family’s oral history, passed down in conversation through the generations.
“My parents were always arguing about, ‘At what point, were we free?’," she says. "They would argue, ‘My ancestor fought in this war’, ‘My ancestor fought in that war’… and when you’re at a family reunion, and your folks are going back and forth, it somehow becomes really significant.”
That significance is heightened, she says, “when you’re a part of a group of people who have been excluded, or have not been included, in Langston Hughes’ words, ‘at the table’,” a situation that is lessening as Olivia Cousins and other women of color take their place within the DAR, and tell their stories.
“We’re part of history,” she says, “and the truth of history heals.”