Heir Unapparent

The descendants of a former housemaid lay claim to one of Texas' grandest ranch fortunes

The year was 1925, and wealthy white men ruled the South.

In South Carolina, a handsome young schoolteacher, the son of prominent white citizens, sired a daughter by his family's 16-year-old black maid.

The teacher, of course, was Strom Thurmond, who rose politically to become one of the South's most avid segregationists and later moderated his racist views during his long years in the U.S. Senate.

The Kenedy family ruled over its immense South Texas ranch from a fortress-like house south of Baffin Bay. A museum devoted to the family's history, top right, was built in tiny Sarita, the Kenedy County seat. Sarita Kenedy East, bottom left, was the last direct Kenedy descendant, unless her brother, John G. Kenedy Jr., center, left behind a grandson, Dr. Ray Fernandez.
Far left: Kenedy Ranch Museum of South Texas; far
The Kenedy family ruled over its immense South Texas ranch from a fortress-like house south of Baffin Bay. A museum devoted to the family's history, top right, was built in tiny Sarita, the Kenedy County seat. Sarita Kenedy East, bottom left, was the last direct Kenedy descendant, unless her brother, John G. Kenedy Jr., center, left behind a grandson, Dr. Ray Fernandez.

And although Thurmond never publicly acknowledged his mixed-race daughter, he provided her with financial support and friendship over the long decades of denial. It was not until after Thurmond's death last year at 100 that Essie Mae Washington, after always insisting he was only a family friend, finally claimed her distinguished white father.

"I was born in Aiken, South Carolina, on October 12, 1925. My mother's name was Carrie Butler. My father's name was James Strom Thurmond," said Washington in going public.


The year was 1925, and wealthy white men ruled South Texas.

And, as this parallel story claims, on an incomprehensibly large and remote South Texas cattle spread, the rambunctious, hard-drinking scion of a pioneer Anglo ranch family sired a daughter by a teenage Hispanic maid.

The long-secret father, according to this account, was the grandson of ranch founder Mifflin Kenedy and heir to a family fortune that has since grown to an estimated $500 million to $1 billion.

And it was not until decades passed that the would-be heir stepped forward. It came with a startling assertion of clandestine parentage made in a lawsuit filed in 2001 in tiny Sarita (population 414), 40 miles south of Corpus Christi.

"Ann M. Fernandez is the biological daughter and sole living heir of John G. Kenedy Jr.," reads the suit, since transferred from the Kenedy County seat to Austin.

The symmetry of the Thurmond and Kenedy stories is easily seen--illicit sexual affairs across the cultural taboos of class and color, followed by nearly eight decades of uneasy silence.

But they are stories with divergent endings.

"I think the differences are startling--the denial of parentage here and the resistance to allowing us to prove our genealogy," says Austin lawyer Mark Schwartz, who represents the Fernandez family.

John G. Kenedy Jr. was believed to be sterile, and when he died in Mexico in 1948 in hazy circumstances, he left everything to his childless wife, Elena.

There was no mention in his will of the child born Anita Matilde, who surfaced five decades later as Ann Fernandez with the claim of being his daughter. There are clues, however, that even back then the Kenedys may have known of Fernandez's inconvenient existence.

"Elena's will is real interesting. She wrote that if there were illegitimate children, they don't receive a penny, which is not a typical thing you find in wills," says Dr. Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County medical examiner and Fernandez's youngest son.

When Elena Kenedy died in 1984 without children, the acknowledged Kenedy bloodline had already expired. The 400,000-acre La Parra Ranch, a spread larger than Rhode Island, fell into the hands of lawyers and trust administrators. Since then, the enormous Kenedy wealth, much of it derived from oil and gas royalties, has been controlled by two large nonprofits that annually donate $15 million or so, primarily to Catholic churches and charities.

The appearance decades later of Kenedy heirs threatens to turn the established order in this insular corner of the state upside down. And very soon the Fernandez family members may learn, for better or worse, if they are an offshoot of the famous Kenedy bloodline.

Preliminary genetic testing on Kenedy relatives, alive and long dead, already has convinced a probate judge in Austin to act. Late last month, he ordered the exhumation of John G. Kenedy Jr.'s body for further DNA testing.

"The court does find that there is a paternity allegation supported by evidence submitted by both sides which constitutes a necessity or compelling reason for exhumation," wrote Judge Guy Herman on January 29, ordering that the exhumation occur by the last day of February.

In his order, the judge said the exhumation is needed to determine if Ann Fernandez, now 78 and mentally incompetent, can establish the necessary legal standing as a Kenedy descendant to make a claim against the estates.

But lawyers for the two huge nonprofits--the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust and the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation--quickly filed appeals to try to block the exhumation.

"In plain English, this is an attempt to overturn over 50 years of cases heard by the courts and of titles that have been established. It would have a devastating effect on the beneficiaries of the trusts," says Buster Adami, an Alice lawyer who represents the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust.

Further, said Adami, even if John G. Kenedy Jr. did father Ann Fernandez, she knew of her parentage decades ago and forfeited any right to make a claim because of statutes of limitations.

The fact that some see a distinct facial resemblance between Ray Fernandez and John G. Kenedy Jr., Fernandez's purported grandfather, is irrelevant, Adami says.

"I don't even get to the descendant issue. I can't tell you if he [Ray Fernandez] is the grandson or not. It's moot. Basically our position has always been that even if he is, there's no way he can make a claim that will hold up in court," Adami says.

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