The story behind the story

Alumna to share her 30-year journey to understand her family history

“Always remember: You’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.”

Bettye Kearse (MED ‘79) has heard that phrase for as long as she can remember. It has become her family’s credo, guiding and empowering them as each generation fights to give the next one a better life.

Kearse has traced her ancestry to Ghana, where her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was stolen to be sold into the Atlantic slave trade. Despite enslavers’ efforts to strip captured Africans of their culture and identities, Kearse’s ancestors held onto traditions that have been passed down for nearly 300 years. 

Among these traditions is the West African custom of naming and training a griot (male) or griotte (female)—a highly respected storyteller charged with preserving the oral history of a family, tribe, or in some cases, a kingdom. In 1990, Kearse took up the mantle when her mother entrusted her with the family’s cherished box of memorabilia.

“Why now?” Kearse asked. Her mother replied: “I wanted to give you plenty of time to write the book.”

Beytte Kerse Book image

After 30 years of research and thousands of miles traveled around the globe, Kearse published The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President's Black Family (Houghton Mifflin, 2020). In this memoir, she details her personal take on the history her mother passed down to her: that they are descended from an enslaved cook named Coreen and her owner, and half-brother, President James Madison.

On March 12, Kearse will share the story behind the story in an interview with Karen F. Kaler, the wife of university President Eric W. Kaler. The event will take place in Washington, D.C., as part of a weekend of events hosted by the African American Alumni Association of Case Western Reserve University. Following her conversation with Kaler, Kearse will present her 2022 TEDx talk, I Am.

Kearse’s experience as a pediatrician in inner city Boston for 31 years inspired her to reach more Black families through her book, documentary and many speaking appearances.

“I was able to help several of my Black patients see that their enslaved ancestors had passed down innumerable gifts to them, including belief in oneself,” she said. “To further extend my reach, I am presently working on a script for a feature film. Everyone loves a good movie.”

Register for the Washington, D.C., trip