First Black Woman Joins the Daughters of the American Revolution’s National Board

Nicole Rojas SAVE THIS
Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly (courtesy of the DAR).

The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a lineage-based group that represents the epitome of white privilege, named Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly as the first African American woman to join its national governing board.

Kelly was also named head of the DAR’s New York state organization on June 30, according to the Associated Press (AP). The change reflects the organization’s efforts to encourage the membership of women of color, who have long been excluded, Kelly and others told the AP.

“The push is largely to encourage people to realize their own foundations and contributions to American history,” the 72-year-old said. Kelly, who lives in New York City, joined the DAR in 2004 after she traced her ancestry to a white Virginian who supplied the Revolutionary War effort.

Kelly was behind another momentous event in the DAR’s history. In 2012, she became one of the first Black women in the organization’s nearly 130-year history to establish a new chapter. That year the Increase Carpenter Chapter welcomed 13 members, five of them Black, The New York Times reported.

DAR President Denise VanBuren praised Kelly as a “wonderful human being” and said the organization was “delighted” and expected great things from the DAR veteran.

VanBuren told The North Star that the DAR was determined to tell all the stories of patriots that people don’t immediately think of, and that includes women and people of color.

“We want to do better…to reflect the contributions of those patriots,” VanBuren said. She said that there were Native American, African American and foreign patriots “who aided the cause of the revolutionaires for their fight for freedom.”

The organization, which was founded in 1890, first allowed a Black woman to join as a member in 1977. Women must be able to show they are related from someone who participated in the Revolutionary War effort between the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 and the withdrawal of British troops in 1783.

Nowadays the DAR has an estimated 185,000 members, although there is not an accurate number on how many women of color are members. Kelly told the AP that she has seen participation among women of color rise in the last decade as genealogy has become more popular.

“We’ve had a real awakening here that we have an obligation to try and tell the stories of some of those folk who[se] history has [been] left out of the history books,” VanBuren told the AP.

Dr. Olivia Cousins, who was a founding member of Kelly’s Queens chapter, traced her family’s lineage to a young soldier who joined the revolution when he was just 17 years old. “My parents understood that they were Americans and that they were a real important part of the American story,” Cousins told The New York Times in 2012.

Cousins’ ancestor was a free man of mixed race, she said.

While an estimated 5,000 Black soldiers fought during the Revolutionary War, the DAR has largely consisted of white members. Seven years ago, VanBuren told The New York Times that the organization had been trying for decades to bring members of diverse backgrounds into the group.

The DAR has a noted history with racism. In 1939, the organization banned world-famous Black contralto Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. The incident prompted then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to renounce her membership.

In 1977, Karen Batchelor became the first Black women to join the DAR in modern times, the AP reported. “There was no one else who looked like me,” the now 68-year-old said.

Batchelor, who said she is happy to see Kelly hold such a high position, told the AP that she hopes Kelly’s new job will inspire other Black women to delve into their ancestry for a Revolutionary War connection. She added that finding out she was descended from people who fought for American independence was eye-opening.

“This discovery, it was mind-boggling, for the first time I said, ‘Wow, I have such deep roots in this country that I didn’t even know I had,’” Batchelor said. “Now when the Fourth of July rolls around, I don’t feel like I felt when I was a little girl, that maybe I was a click short of being really American because of the color of my skin. Now, I feel more American than apple pie, and that’s a good thing.”

 


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.

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