DOVER -- Bettye Kearse's ancestors had ties to President James Madison -- they were slaves owned by the Madison family. But she thinks there's more to the story.
She says that Madison fathered a child by one of those slaves, producing her family line.
Her assertion is a matter of much debate, and proof hasn't been found. Kearse, 64, of Dover, still believes it, certain there's truth in a story that has become part of her family's lore.
"It's been passed down from generation to generation, from parent to child," said Kearse, a pediatrician who works at Neponset Health Center in Dorchester and has lived in Dover since 1983. "We have a saying in our family: 'Always remember, you're a Madison.' "
Now she hopes that a team of researchers will help her prove a link between her family and the nation's fourth president.
Kearse's comments are similar to those made by descendants of Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson who they believe bore his child.
But the historical implications are different for Madison, who never had children with his wife, Dolley. If Kearse's story were proven, it would mean Madison's only descendants are African-American.
Madison biographer Ralph Ketcham is skeptical. The story seems "far-fetched," he said, and out of harmony with the historical record about Madison.
There were many rumors in Jefferson's lifetime that he had fathered a child with one of his slaves, but nothing of the sort about Madison, Ketcham said.
"There has never been any hint, inkling, or suggestion of any kind before," said Ketcham, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University. "There is nothing except a story of a totally loving and committed marriage."
What's more likely, Ketcham said, is that one of Madison's brothers actually fathered the child. Madison had three brothers who lived into adulthood, and they all spent their lives near his Montpelier estate in Virginia, Ketcham said.
It's a possibility that will figure into any probe of the issue, according to Bruce Jackson, a forensic scientist and codirector of the Roots Project, which tries to connect African-Americans with their ancestors.
Jackson hopes to test Madison family descendants for a DNA match with relatives of Kearse. He said he is planning to travel to England this summer to seek descendants from the side of the Madison family that never came to America.
For technical reasons, however, a DNA match would show only whether Kearse's family descends from one of the Madison brothers, not necessarily from James. Learning that will take detective work, Jackson said: Researchers will comb through plantation records to try to ascertain when a child was conceived, and whether James Madison or his brothers were even at Montpelier at the time.
If it turns out James was the only one there, Jackson says there will be a strong case that he fathered the child.
Jackson, who is chairman of the science department at Massachusetts Bay Community College, said he believes there's a good chance the project could succeed.
"I wouldn't be doing this otherwise," he said.
The National Society of the Madison Family Descendants declined to comment on the issue, but said it is happy to pass along the request asking descendants to donate DNA, according to Frederick Madison Smith, secretary of the society.
Michael Quinn, president of the nonprofit Montpelier Foundation, which runs Montpelier, said it's "common knowledge" that many slave owners had relations with their slaves.
"Our view is that this is research, and the more we learn, the better off we are," Quinn said. "It's simply uncovering history."
Even if the story is substantiated, Kearse said she wouldn't describe herself as "proud" of her possible relation to Madison. Though she has always tried to achieve a lot in life -- she holds a Ph D in biology in addition to her MD -- she doesn't ascribe it to being a Madison, as previous generations did for their successes.
"What is there really to be proud of? Should I really be proud of descending from this powerful slave owner?" she said. "I have never questioned that Madison was a great man . . . My question is whether he was a good man."
She has concluded that he was known for often having 100 slaves at a time, and during his life he freed just one of them.
Kearse said she gains more inspiration from having descended from slaves, especially from Coreen, the cook who she believes bore Madison's child.
Kearse recalled an occasion about a decade ago when she visited Montpelier and saw a groove in the floor of the kitchen -- a groove that was created by the slaves walking back and forth to serve the Madisons their meals.
"I felt part of the history, part of the traditions there," Kearse said. "I felt a closeness to her, to Coreen herself. I became her."
"I feel that not all the credit for what I have been able to achieve goes to descending from Madison," she added. "I think that I have some of her blood in me also. I get some of my strength from her as well."