In recent years, genealogy has enjoyed a renaissance as a trend on reality shows like NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, and that can be attributed in large part to Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (pictured), whose PBS specials African American Lives, African American Lives 2 and Faces of America helped shed a light on the fascinating ethnic backgrounds of many different people. This passion that Gates has to, as he says, “get into the DNA of American culture” now continues on a larger scale in the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.
According to Gates, “The idea for this series was born on July 3, 1960, when I was 9 years old, and that was the day we buried my grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates. And [he] looked like a white man with blood coursing through his veins. He was so white, we called him ‘Casper’ behind his back. So you can imagine how white he looked dead. I was standing there at his open casket, holding my father’s hand, and looking at my grandfather, and I was captivated by how white he was, and where that whiteness came from. And the next day, I bought a composition book, and I went home, and I interviewed my parents about their family trees.”
It wasn’t until DNA technology really broke through in the early 2000s, however, that Gates could really dive into such research, eventually discovering that in two cases out of the four that he tested (black families that thought they were descended from whites before the tests were run), African-Americans were indeed descended from a white ancestor — usually the white man who owned the original slave family. “It turns out that we have never tested an African-American who was 100 percent black,” says Gates.
Originally working with African-American history, Gates has expanded his testing into a wide range of cultures and people, and in this series he teams up with a number of notable personalities to research their histories.
Among the highlights are:
• Harry Connick Jr., whose fifth great-grandfather turns out to have been a privateer fighting in the American Revolution on a ship called the Rattlesnake: “Harry is in the process, I think, of joining the Sons of the American Revolution because of that,” says Gates.
• Barbara Walters: “We found her original name. She had no idea her genealogy had been done. It was full of mistakes. She thought her name was Abramovich, and it turns out her original name is Von Vasser … and we found the original Stettles that both lines are from.”
• Branford Marsalis: “Branford actually descends from a white man who was a German, Johann, who changed his name to John, who shows up in New Orleans in 1851, and he fathers a child with … a free black woman named Mertay Valentine. And Branford had absolutely no idea that this ancestor existed.”
• Married couple Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon: “They share two things: They are both descendants from people who owned slaves, and they are indeed distant cousins. So talk about six degrees of separation, right?”
Ultimately, Gates hopes a series like Finding Your Roots shows that we all aren’t really separated by very much, in the end.
“I want … Americans [to] realize how united we are as a people. … There’s so much animosity, and it’s really related, I think, to class divisions in this country. And one of the things that I want the series to do — my subtext — is to show that, deep down, we are all Americans. We’ve been sleeping together from the very beginning of the country.”
Finding Your Roots airs Sundays on PBS beginning March 25, beginning with the “Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis” episode at 8pm ET, and the “Cory Booker and John Lewis” episode at 9pm ET.
Photo credit: Joseph Sinnott/WNET