Not every person of color can claim lineage that includes famous Native American Pocahontas and her husband, English settler John Rolfe – a marriage that acted as a peace treaty between the Jamestown, Virginia settlers and Powhatan Indians for years to come, but Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly can proudly claim that union as part of her heritage.
As a young child, Kelly was always curious and often asked her grandparents about the family’s history, and what life was like in her Father’s native South Carolina and her mother’s native Virginia and New York. She learned of ancestors such as her mother’s grandfather, born in 1870 to slave owner Edward “Ned” Yates Hamlin and his slave, Dolly Scott. Ned was an attorney in a long line of attorneys and law enforcement officials. Despite his tough occupation, Ned had a soft spot in his heart for Dolly, the only woman with whom he ever had children. Such was Ned’s commitment and devotion to Dolly that he provided for her and her ten children in his will, leaving a paper trail that afforded protection and deeded land and household belongings to his beloved at a time when legal marriage between the two races was not permitted.
It was upon hitting a brick wall in her genealogy search that Kelly approached “Daughters of the American Revolution” (DAR) at an annual family genealogy conference to see if they could be of assistance. They invited her to a workshop where she learned more about genealogy research techniques, as well as the organization itself.
There is no denying that the historically-White DAR, founded on October 11, 1890, has a “colorful” history! Most who delve into it will quickly learn of Marian Anderson, a Black contralto who requested to have a concert at DAR’s Constitution Hall, the largest concert hall in Washington, D.C., in 1939. She was denied, an action that later led Eleanor Roosevelt herself to renounce her membership in protest of what she felt was DAR’s exclusion of Blacks.
According to Kelly, Washington, D.C. was a segregated city and it was illegal for Marian to perform at Constitution Hall; thus DAR was operating in accordance with the law. Since that time-frame, DAR has reached out to invite and welcome Marion to perform at Constitution Hall many times, including a 1943 concert to raise money for the war effort and her farewell tour. Kelly feels that DAR has taken several steps over the years to show itself friendly, welcoming, and helpful – with a door that is wide open to anyone who has a passion for DAR’s primary objectives:
- Historical – to perpetuate the memory and spirit of the men and women who achieved American Independence
- Educational – to carry out the injunction of George Washington in his farewell address to the American people, “to promote, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge, thus developing an enlightened public opinion…”
- Patriotic – to cherish, maintain, and extend the institutions of American freedom, to foster true patriotism and love of country, and to aid in securing for mankind all the blessings of liberty.
Kelly believes the history is there, waiting to be explored, and that studying and understanding your ancestry gives you a greater sense of self and your place in America and the world.
Almost as if proof of this fact, not only did Kelly join DAR, but after serving as Registrar and then Regent (President) of the Manhattan, New York chapter, she was asked to start a chapter in Queens, making her the first woman of color to start a Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) chapter. Since then, she has helped nearly 100 women join DAR.
Since its founding year of 1890, DAR has admitted over 950,000 women, and currently has 185,000 members in 3,000 chapters worldwide. Any woman 18 years of age or older can join, regardless of race, religion or ethnic background, if she is a descendant of a patriot who fought or contributed to the Independence during the revolutionary war, like Kelly’s ancestors, who contributed guns, horses, and fodder (food for cattle/livestock) to the war effort. Proving one’s ancestry is dependent upon a good document trail, and DAR is more than willing to help individuals in that regard.
Kelly believes the history is there, waiting to be explored, and that studying and understanding your ancestry gives you a greater sense of self and your place in America and the world. For beginners, she recommends you start with yourself (the known) and work your way backwards (into the unknown). Tools include documentation such as Census Reports, websites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, and DNA analysis (which can provide a detailed explanation and further confirmation when coupled with a document trail) to more basic techniques such as interviewing your oldest living relative to record names, facts and occurrences before the information is lost, potentially forever. Additionally, genealogy groups and workshops abound, including the free monthly workshops Kelly and her sister provide to assist people desiring to explore their heritage.
Lastly, Kelly has and continues to offer her own resources and encourages individuals to contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “DAR Prospective” and if she can help people seeking to trace their family tree, she certainly will. For as Kelly believes, and her heritage going back to Pocahontas and John Rolfe prove, “You don’t know what you’ll find until you start to search. And these are the kinds of surprises you can find when you start to search!”