When Sherri Burr was a child, her grandmother and great-grandmother told her there was something special about her family.
“It was a big secret,” Burr said in an interview last week. “My brother and I were told there was something special about our family name but we were never told what it was.”
In 2013, the University of New Mexico law professor was working on a book about intellectual property rights when she happened to look up records for her great-aunt who lived and died in Wyoming.
That seemingly simple task dovetailed into a six-year research project that would uncover the long-held secret. Burr has learned through historical research and DNA testing that she is a descendant of Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States, who is notorious for fatally wounding Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
Sherri Burr’s work was recently recognized by the Aaron Burr Association, has been included in one published and one forthcoming book, and is referenced in Burr’s current exhibit at the African American Performing Arts Center in Albuquerque. The exhibit commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans on the Eastern Seaboard of what would become the United States.
Burr, 59, has traced her heritage to John Pierre Burr, who has now been officially recognized as the son of Vice President Aaron Burr and Mary Eugenie Emmons, a servant in the Burr household from Calcutta, India.
John Pierre Burr lived in Philadelphia, where he was publicly a barber and privately a conductor on the Underground Railroad, working with Harriet Tubman to guide enslaved blacks to freedom.
“I was most concerned with getting John Pierre his due,” Sherri Burr said. “We’re celebrating the 400th year this year, and these broken links of paternity affected all these African families, and (John Pierre Burr) is part of that. I think it’s important, even if it’s only one example, to symbolically connect a parental link to someone who could not be recognized at the time of their birth.”
Earlier this month, Philadelphia’s Eden Cemetery put up a new headstone that honors John Pierre Burr’s accomplishments and recognizes him as the former vice president’s son.
“A few people didn’t want to go into it, because Aaron’s first wife, Theodosia, was still alive and dying of cancer” when the Newark, New Jersey-born Aaron Burr fathered John Pierre, Stuart Fisk Johnson, the president of the Aaron Burr Society, told The Washington Post. “But the embarrassment is not as important as it is to acknowledge and embrace actual living, robust, accomplished children.”
Burr joined University of New Mexico’s faculty as a law professor in 1988. She retired from her full-time teaching position and became a professor emeritus in 2017 so she could devote more time to research.
“It’s sort of like working with puzzles but not having a frame,” she said of the process.
Burr’s examination of records connected with her aunt uncovered one of her ancestors, George Hill, who was born a free black man in Virginia in 1847. George Hill was a descendant of Gideon Hill, who was freed from slavery as a 2-year-old in 1787.
“Then I was hooked. I was totally hooked. Wow. I did not know this story about my family,” Burr said. “I wanted to find out how many freed blacks there were in the South before the Civil War.”
Burr’s book, “Complicated Lives,” which has already been published, tells the story of some of the earliest free blacks who lived in both the northern and southern part of early America. Burr is also working on “Aaron Burr’s Family of Color,” which will probably be published in the next year or two, she said.
Her exhibit at the African American Performing Arts Center will be open through late October.
Burr said she’s been asked to put together a lecture on her findings for students at UNM, where she still has an office.
“My answer to how you teach slavery is in this exhibition. There is too much misinformation. There is the thought that all the slaves were in the South and none of the slaves were in the North,” Burr said. “There is the thought that all blacks were slaves before the Civil War and all whites were slaveholders before the Civil War, and that’s not true.”