African American News and Genealogy

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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Aaron Burr fans find unlikely ally in black descendant

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

By Greg Ip, The Wall Street Journal

PHILADELPHIA -- For years, Stuart Fisk Johnson, a white criminal-defense attorney, has doggedly researched the life of his distant ancestor Aaron Burr in hopes of restoring Burr's good name. Recently, Mr. Johnson found an unlikely ally here: an 86-year-old retired black nurse who says she is Burr's great-great-great-granddaughter, the descendant of Burr's illegitimate, mixed-race son. The nation's third vice president, Burr hasn't been treated kindly by history. He is chiefly remembered for killing his rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Thomas Jefferson suspected Burr of trying to take the presidency from him in the disputed election of 1800. Years later, Jefferson had him arrested for treason for allegedly trying to start a war with Spain and separate the western territories from the United States. Though Burr was acquitted, his reputation was ruined. It has more or less stayed that way, in part because of the great esteem in which Hamilton and Jefferson are still held. Lately some historians have painted a more benign picture. They note that Burr, unlike Jefferson, actively opposed slavery (though he may have owned a few slaves himself). He introduced a bill in the New York Legislature to abolish slavery. He courted the political support of New York's black leaders. And his purported illegitimate son, Philadelphia barber John Pierre Burr, was a prominent abolitionist. At its annual meeting in King of Prussia, near Philadelphia, this week, the Aaron Burr Association, a small group of Burr devotees headed by Mr. Johnson, plans to share a trove of family documents, pictures and oral history owned by Louella Burr Mitchell Allen, the nurse who traces her lineage to John Pierre Burr. Mrs. Allen, who lives in a Philadelphia retirement home, will speak at the meeting about Burr's family of color. The documents and oral history aren't conclusive; there is no birth, death or marriage certificate linking Aaron Burr to John Pierre Burr. And DNA testing hasn't been done. Still, Mr. Johnson and his association are embracing Mrs. Allen and her relatives as long lost kin. "Even though it hasn't been proven yet, we're very conscious (Mrs. Allen) is getting up in years and we want to learn about her and this family before it's too late," says Mr. Johnson, 62 years old, who runs the association from his home in Upper Marlboro, Md. His sister, Phyllis Morales, says there's no question that Mrs. Allen "is my relative," adding that she "looks just like us -- her mannerisms, her voice." Mr. Johnson and Ms. Morales trace their family tree back to a cousin of Burr's. The Burr group's embrace of Mrs. Allen contrasts with the cool reception many of Thomas Jefferson's white descendants have given descendants of Jefferson slave Sally Hemings. In 1998, DNA testing demonstrated that Jefferson was probably the father of one of her sons. Nonetheless, the Monticello Association, which controls burial rights at the Jefferson family cemetery near Charlottesville, Va., says the DNA evidence is not conclusive. So far the association has declined to permit Hemings descendants to be buried at the cemetery, which is restricted to Jefferson's direct descendants. Many of the details of Burr's life are well-known. In 1782, he married a woman 10 years his senior, Theodosia Prevost, the widow of a British army officer. They had at least two children, but only one survived to adulthood, a girl also named Theodosia. Burr was rumored to have fathered illegitimate white children, but Mr. Johnson says he knows of no living descendants of them and no descendants of Burr's daughter. Much of what the Aaron Burr Association now knows of Mr. Burr's mixed-race family was collected and written down by Mabel Burr Cornish, the great granddaughter of John Pierre Burr. After Mrs. Cornish died in 1955, her notes were given to Mrs. Allen, her niece. Mrs. Allen displays a thick scrapbook of documents and handwritten remembrances in her retirement suite. "We are proud of the fact (Burr) was an upstanding citizen and not a dirty politician," she said. She opened the book to a picture of John Pierre Burr that, she says, hung in his Philadelphia barber shop. It shows a handsome, grave man with a distinctive narrow nose that resembles Aaron Burr's and Mrs. Allen's. The history collected by Mrs. Cornish and Mrs. Allen suggests that Aaron Burr had two children with Mary Emmons, who was a servant but not a slave in Burr's household in Philadelphia while he was married to Theodosia. Mary Emmons was born in Calcutta and lived in Haiti before coming to the U.S. The couple had a daughter, Louisa Charlotte, in 1788. They had a son, John Pierre, in 1792. Allen Ballard, a distant cousin of Mrs. Allen who counts himself as a Burr descendant, says that some of his own, older relatives felt ambivalent about being descended from Burr. "This traitor thing still hung on him," he says. "There hadn't been all this revisionist history" of recent years that portrays Burr as victimized by the malice of Hamilton and Jefferson. Mr. Ballard, who teaches history and African-American studies at the State University of New York at Albany, says his mother's aunt had a marriage certificate showing that Burr and Emmons were married after Theodosia's death but that the aunt tore it up out of frustration with the family's lack of interest. Though his mother may have been East Indian, John Pierre Burr considered himself an African American. A free man, he turned his barber shop into a station in the underground railroad. He hid slaves in the backyard and attic, according to Mrs. Cornish's writings. Mrs. Allen thinks Aaron Burr may have quietly supported John Pierre Burr in his abolitionist activities although there's no proof of that. After serving as an officer in George Washington's army, Burr became prominent in New York state politics. In 1800, Jefferson chose him as his vice-presidential running mate. The two tied in the Electoral College, which in those days did not cast separate ballots for president and vice president, so the decision was thrown to the House of Representatives. Whether Burr actively tried to become president is unclear but Jefferson, who eventually prevailed, suspected that he had, and hated him for it. Burr later ran for governor of New York, incurring the wrath of Alexander Hamilton, who tried to undermine Burr's candidacy. Hamilton's alleged slanders -- precisely what he said is unclear -- led to the fatal duel, fought on the New Jersey cliffs overlooking Manhattan. Burr then traveled west to explore turning Spanish territory, and possibly some of the newly acquired U.S. western territory, into a separate country. Jefferson learned of the plan and had him tried for treason in 1807. He was acquitted thanks to the interventions of Chief Justice John Marshall, a Jefferson antagonist, who presided over the trial. Burr, his reputation ruined nonetheless, left for Europe. He returned in 1812. He married a wealthy widow in 1833; they were divorced the day Burr died in 1836. The new evidence of Burr's family of color gets mixed reactions from historians. Thomas Fleming, author of "Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America," is skeptical, arguing that Burr's enemies would almost certainly have learned of such a family's existence and "played it up very big." But Roger Kennedy, author of "Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson: a Study in Character," calls the story "plausible." He notes Burr, in a letter to his daughter Theodosia, briefly mentioned a woman in Philadelphia about whom he seemed to feel both affection and guilt. Mr. Kennedy speculates it may have been a woman of color. The Aaron Burr Association has explored DNA testing to verify the link. But the test is generally on the male Y chromosome, which changes little between generations, and the association has not found a suitable male descendant of John Pierre Burr from whom to take a sample. Mrs. Allen has no doubts. "Since the beginning of time, the races all meshed," she says. "And you know what? You get quality from this combination."


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