HomeArticlesFinding Your Roots: The Official Companion to the PBS Series
Finding Your Roots: The Official Companion to the PBS Series
August 18, 2019
>>Jim Gardner: Good evening. On behalf of
the Archivist of the United States welcome to the National Archives & Records Administration
and the William G. McGowan Theater. Welcome to those of you joining us via YouTube. I’m
Jim Gardner, Executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries, Museum Services here
at the Archives. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to welcome you tonight.
Tonight’s guest will help us find the answers to the questions who are we and where are
we from. We’ll get some practical information for amateur genealogists just beginning in
search of their ancestry as well as learn about more sophisticated tools and methods
for the more experienced genealogical researchers. And we’ll be getting it from one of the nation’s
leading scholars and experts in this field. Tonight”s discussion comes less than two weeks
before the National Archives Virtual Genealogy Fair to be held October 28, 29, and 30. Via
internet you’ll be able to hear about and ask questions about resources for family history
and research and engage with genealogy experts at our Archives’ facilities all around the
country. Recorded sessions of the Virtual Genealogy Fair will remain available online
after the events. For more information about the affair, go to its website at www.archives.gov/calendar/genealogy-fair/.
If you got all of that. [Laughter]
Just go on archives.gov and search for genealogy. [Laughter]
I’m only reading what they tell me to. [Laughter]
Before we get back to genealogy and bring out our special guest, I’d like to tell you
about two programs coming up soon in the McGowan Theater. This Saturday, October 18 at 2:30
p.m. we will present the film “On Approval,” a rarely seen British comedy about two couples
in England who want to find out if they are compatible for marriage by living together
for a time. Trying out spouses on approval. This film is presented in partnership with
the National Gallery of Art. Then next Thursday, October 23 at noon, we
will welcome author Michael Blanding who will discuss his new book, “The Map Thief” the
gripping story of an esteemed rare map dealer who made millions dealing priceless maps.
The book is a story of a respectful map dealer who spent years doubling as a map thief until
he was finally caught snipping maps out of the Yale University Library. A book signing
will follow that program. To learn more about these and all of our public
programs and exhibits, consult our monthly calendar of events in print or online. Copies
are available in the library — “the library.” In the lobby outside along with a signup sheet
so you can receive the calendar by regular mail or email. You’ll also find brochures
about other National Archives programs and activities.
Another way to get more involved in the National Archives is to become a member of the Foundation
for The National Archives. The foundation supports the work of the agency, especially
its education and outreach grant. Pick up an application out in the lobby as well.
Our guest speaker tonight is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alfonse Fletcher University Professor
at Harvard University and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American
Research there. Professor Gates has an extraordinary record
of accomplishments. I can touch on only a few in the moments that I have. He earned
his Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from Yale and his Master’s
and Doctorate in English Literature from Clare College at the University of Cambridge.
Professor Gates directed the Institutes for African and African-American Research, now
the Hutchins Center since arriving at Harvard in 1991. He also chaired the Department of
Afro-American Studies as expanded into the Department of African and African-American
Studies with a full-fledged doctoral program. Among the many honors he’s received was one
of the Genius Grants from the MacArthur Foundation in 1981. He wasn’t just one of the recipients.
He was a member of the first class of recipients for MacArthur Foundation awards. In 1998,
he became the first African-American scholar to receive the National Humanities Medal and
has been awarded 53 honorary degrees. Over the course of his distinguished career,
Professor Gates has created 13 documentary films and authored books and scores of articles
for leading journals and other publications. Currently he serves as Editor-in-Chief of
“TheRoot.com,” a daily on-line magazine, while overseeing the Oxford African-American Studies
Center, the first comprehensive totally online resource in the field.
Professor Gates’ most recent film is the six-part PBS documentary series, “The African-American:
Many Rivers to Cross” which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted. He won the 2013 Peabody
Award and an NAACP Image Award. The second season of his PBS series “Finding Your Roots”
is currently airing on all three PBS affiliates in the Washington area.
As for those questions, who are we and where do we come from, for the answers we need look
no further than his book, “Finding Your Roots: The Official Companion to the PBS Series.”
The University of Maryland historian calls the book an accessible and engaging book that
is a veritable how-to guide for readers to explore their own past. Literary critic Kam
Williams said the book weaved a wonderful tribute to America as a very culturally rich
melting pot. Professor Gates will discuss his book tonight and be available to sign
copies of it after the program. Now, please welcome Professor Henry Louis
Gates, Jr. [Applause]
>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks so much for coming
out tonight. Thanks for that great introduction. I love the National Archives. Isn’t it great?
Give it up for the National Archives, man. [Applause]
I remember the day that we were making African-American Lives. We filmed here. I didn’t know why we
were filming here. Then they showed me my fourth great grandfather, a free Negro, his
pension application after serving in the Continental Army. It was amazing. I had no idea that I
had an ancestor who was free at that time. It was the beginning about my family tree.
Or that an ancestor had served in the Continental Army. So that was a real thrill. So I love
this place. So thank you.
When they invited me — I’m on the Stamp Committee. The Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee. There
are eight of us on the Stamp Committee. We get to recommend people to be on stamps. Obviously
I’m very concerned with diversity and African-Americans and women and other people of color. So it’s
a real pleasure for me to serve on that committee. Our meetings are today and tomorrow, so I
said, well, I have to do this. It will give me the thrill of coming back to one of my
favorite places in the United States. Thanks so much for having me. Thanks so much
for coming out. I’m going to play you a little sizzle reel,
as it’s called. Then I’m going to tell you how a guy with a Ph.D. in English Literature
from Cambridge ends up tracing people’s family trees. If we can play that, that would be great.
>>The series journeys into the past with the constellation of renowned Americans, broadcasters,
entertainers, educators, spiritual leaders and public servants.
>>The headstone is sunk into the ground. There’s more writing on here.
>>Research reveals startling surprises in each book of life.
>>Oh my God.>>The story gets more interesting. I’d like
you to keep reading.>>Oh my gosh.
>>Do you think your father ever thought about this?
>>I don’t know. If he did, he never talked about it.
>>The plot thickens.>>With your permission, we’d like to find
out if you’re a descendant of King Edward I on your father’s side.
>>Of course I’m cool with that. Yeah.>>So this is your Kunta Kinte moment. I can
say that in Hebrew. [Laughter]
>>You know that we’re interviewing your husband, Kevin Bacon. Is there anything that you would
like to learn about his family tree?>>My biggest fear is that we’re cousins.
>>And every family history needs a family name.
>>Is there anything in particular that you’d like to know about your family tree?
>>One is my dad’s lineage as a whole. We don’t even know where the name Booker came
from. We only have the suspicions.>>36 years old. Showed us a male child to
whom was given the name Abraham Isaac.>>Abraham Yitzhak Varnvaser.
>>Where’s the Booker name? Do you have any idea?
>>You’re going to make up a story because you don’t know.
>>Have you ever heard of this name?>>Never.
>>Well, it means warm water. In 1910, they changed the name to Walters. Would you sign?
>>First book of Frank.>>Right.
>>My great grandfather with a fireman on the Southern Railroad?
>>There it is right there, in Knoxville, Tennessee.
>>So I’m Barbara Warm Waters. I like Barbara Warm Waters.
>>Mystery solved. Our name was from a fireman on the Southern Railroad.
>>He was hot stuff. [Laughter]
>>Your fifth great grandfather owned a ship. Guess what the ship was called.
>>That’s bad ass.>>Your ancestor was infamous for sailing
in the West Indies. The British crown proclaimed 5,000 Guinea reward for David McCullough’s
head.>>That’s so cool.
>>He sounds like the original Jack Sparrow.>>He does. That’s unbelievable.
>>Johnny Depp has nothing on your ancestor.>>For some, history repeats itself.
>>John, this is a page from the voter registration roles for Alabama in the year 1867. Could
you read the transcribed name?>>Carter Tobias.
>>Your great, great grandfather Tobias Carter registered to vote as a citizen of the United
States of America in 1867, two years after he was freed from slavery; the second he could
register to vote.>>So maybe, just maybe, it is part of my
DNA, my bloodline or whatever you want to call it. This is incredible.
>>Thank you. Thank you. Now if we can go to the PowerPoint, please. They will in a
minute. There you go. Great. Well, how did I get interested in genealogy?
It all started — I actually remember the date. It started the day that I met this lady.
This is the oldest Gates that we’ve ever been able to trace. She was born 1819, as you can
see. So I didn’t meet her literally. But it’s the day I first saw this photograph. I remember
it exactly because it was the day that we buried my grandfather. And this is my grandfather,
Edward St. Lawrence Gates. This is his baby picture. He was born in 1879 and died in 1960.
So it’s July 3, 1960 in Cumberland, Maryland. How many of you know where Cumberland is?
Wow. Everybody knows. Nice to be lecturing in DC. If I’m out in L.A. or something, Cumberland,
Maryland? What is that? All the Gates are from Cumberland, Maryland,
as far back as we can trace. My grandfather was a very prominent part of the black community
in Cumberland. So everybody black in Cumberland was at his funeral. And I’m standing in front
of his open casket, holding my father’s hand. I was 9 years old. I had never been this close
to a corpse before. Now, my grandfather looked white. He was so
white that we called him Casper behind his back.
[Laughter] If he had caught us, he would have killed
us. Right? So you could imagine how white he looked dead.
[Laughter] He looked like he had been coated with Alabaster,
sprinkled with baby powder. I’m holding my father’s hand. First of all, I’m terrified
because I’m this close to a corpse. And then I’m looking at how white he looked, like he
had been sculpted in marble. I heard this noise from my father. And I thought my father
was laughing at how ridiculously white the undertaker had made his father. I know it
sounds stupid. But that’s what I thought. Now, why would I think such a stupid thing?
Because my father was the funniest man on the face of the earth. My father made Redd
Foxx look like an undertaker. [Laughter]
I’ll tell you how funny my father was. When I was growing up — I’m born in 1950. Right?
When I was growing up, the blackest thing you could be was an educated man or an educated
woman, a doctor or a lawyer. My mama told me I was smart. So I believed her. Right?
Anything she said I believed. I wanted to go to Harvard or Yale as an undergraduate
because smart people went to Harvard or Yale. Then I wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge.
I wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar. I wanted to go to England.
So I got into Yale. I went to junior college in Keysey, West Virginia. I applied to Yale
to transfer. I applied to be a freshman all over again. They let me in as a sophomore.
So I went to Yale as a sophomore. I did very well. I’ve always been –I can say this, I’ve
always been blessed in the classroom, as our people say. So I knew that I was going to
get one of these fellowships. Applied for seven fellowships to go to Oxford and Cambridge.
But I knew I was going to get a Rhodes Scholarship. So I just applied for the others for the sake
of it. Right? And I was a finalist for each of these fellowships.
I would walk into the final interview and lose the fellowship. I was a finalist for
–I didn’t get it for Marshall, none of these. I lost the first six of seven fellowships.
And I was down to the last fellowship to take me to Oxford or Cambridge.
My girlfriend, who’s now the famous scholar Linda Darling Hammond, we were a junior-year
item at Yale. She had a big afro and so did I. My man Cornel West’s afro looked like a
crew cut next to mine. I had a closet full of –I knew the secret soul handshake. Remember
that? We would change it every month, like changing the computer code, to make sure you
were still black. I said, “Linda, what am I doing?” She said,
“Obviously you’re being phony, artificial. Just go in there and be yourself.” And I figured,
what the heck? I’ve lost all the others. And I went in there. I was totally myself. And
I got this fellowship. Ladies and gentlemen, other than the days
that my two daughters –on which my two daughters were born, happiest day of my life without
a question. I ran back to Calhoun College at Yale. I called
— it was 3:30 in the afternoon. My dad was there. Daddy answered the phone. I said, “Daddy,
Daddy, put mom on the extension phone.” Remember those days? You didn’t have two phones. You
had a phone and an extension phone. And mama was there. Picked up the extension phone.
I said, “You’ll never believe it. I got a Mellon Fellowship, a Mellon Fellowship. I’m
the first Afro-American.” Remember, this was February 1932. We were Afro-American then.
“I’m the first Afro-American.” Without missing a beat, my daddy said, “You’re the first Negro
to get a Mellon Fellowship?” [Laughter]
I said, “Yeah.” He was never big on that black thing. You know what I’m talking about? I
go, “Yeah, Daddy.” He said, “Huh, they going to call it the watermelon fellowship from
now on.” [Laughter]
My daddy, ladies and gentlemen. Give it up for my father.
[Applause] He lived to be 97 1/2 years old. I miss him
even to this day. So cut back to the funeral home on Baltimore
Street, Cumberland, Maryland, 1960. I’m standing there. I think my father is laughing at how
white his father looks in the casket. And, of course, he’s not. The noise I heard from
my father was crying. And I had never seen my father cry before.
I don’t know about you all, but can you remember when you first saw one of your parents cry?
It was very traumatic. Plus it was really traumatic for me because I had just done this
idiotic thing like laughing in front of my grandfather’s corpse in front of all the colored
people in Cumberland, Maryland. Fortunately people were so riveted at the fact that my
father was crying, a funny man had broken down to cry, that they didn’t even notice
me. So, I started to cry, too. So anyway, we had
the funeral. A little Episcopal ceremony; lasted 11 minutes. Then we went over to Rose
Hill Cemetery, the Episcopal cemetery in Cumberland where all the Gates are buried. We buried
Pop Gates, as we called him, very near to Jane Gates — I didn’t know who she was at
this time — was buried. Then we came back to the Gates family home which I would later
learn Jane had bought in 1870 in an allwhite neighborhood for cash.
We’ll come back to that. So daddy takes my brother. I have one brother,
Dr. Paul Gates, Chief of Dentistry. He’s five years older. Daddy takes us upstairs in our
grandparent’s house. I don’t know about you. I didn’t even know my grandparents had a bedroom.
They would disappear magically up the steps at night. We weren’t allowed to go upstairs
at my grandparents’ house. Black people didn’t play back in those days. You didn’t call an
older black person by their first name. No way! I have students who say, “What am I supposed
to call you?” I say, “Don’t hesitate to call me Professor.”
[Laughter] What do you think you’re supposed to call
me? You know? [Applause]
Your mama. [Laughter]
People crazy all of this first name stuff. You didn’t step on a grave. Remember that?
And you – God knows you didn’t sit on somebody’s bed. No. See. Black people said, no, oh, no.
[Laughter] So we are going upstairs. It’s like going
to Mars for my brother and me. We’re looking around. We’re wondering what my father is
doing taking us upstairs in his parents’ house. His mother’s still alive. He takes us into
their bedroom. And my cousin Johnny Gates still owns that house. There’s a sun porch
off the bedroom. We go out on the sun porch. There’s a big armoire out there. A big, you
know, closet, cabinet. And daddy — it’s full of bank ledgers. And my grandfather cleaned
the First National Bank. He was a janitor. He was stealing these bank ledgers. So my
brother and I compared notes. We thought, man, we’re rich. They got to divide the money.
It wasn’t that. My father starts pulling these bank ledgers out of the armoire. My grandfather
was using them as scrapbooks. He was clipping newspapers. He loved current events. So daddy
keeps pulling these bank ledgers out. He’s looking for something, paging through, thumbing
through the pages furiously looking for something and not telling us what his agenda is.
We’re look over his shoulder. And even quickly as he turned the pages, you could see that
he had a certain fascination with death: automobile accidents, airplane accidents, railroad. And
then the — remember –remember. Very few people here could remember. But every local
paper were print in that region. He also was a race man, in spite of the fact that he could
have passed — you know, he clipped the first Negro judge elected in 1942 in Harlem. I thought,
wow. Anyway. Finally he finds what he’s looking
for. You know what it was? It was an obituary dated January 6, 1888. And it said, “Died
this day in Cumberland, Maryland, Jane Gates, an estimable color woman.” And then he put
a photograph out between the pages of that bank ledger. And he said, “This is Jane Gates.
She was a slave. She was a midwife. This is her nursing costume.” I didn’t know what the
word midwife meant. “I never want you to forget her name or her identity because she’s the
oldest Gates that we can trace.” Such an odd thing to do. And then he closed the bank ledger,
picked up the ones on the floor, put them back in the armoire. We went downstairs.
That night we lived — we lived in Piedmont, West Virginia, also on the Potomac. Cumberland
— I don’t have to tell you. But it’s half way between Pittsburgh and DC. And Piedmont,
West Virginia, there’s a paper mill in Luke, Maryland, right across the bridge. And that’s
where all the colored people lived — worked — who worked in the paper mill. So we drove
the 25 miles from Cumberland back to Piedmont. And my dad worked two jobs. He worked for
37 years in the paper mill. He was a janitor in the evening five days a week at the telephone
company. He would get home at 3:30 when the mill would blow. We would have our evening
meal at 4:00. And then he would go to his second job, 4:30, as a janitor and get home
at 7:30. So we were very comfortable. We were certainly
one of the most prosperous black families in Piedmont if not the most because of daddy
working two jobs. So I always had my own bedroom and my own desk and my own bookcase. My father
was very, very concerned about that because both their boys were going to be medical doctors.
Doctors sat next to Jesus when I was growing up. It wasn’t even a choice. That’s what we
were going to do. So I always kept a red Webster’s dictionary
on my desk by my bed. The last thing I did before I went to sleep on the night of July
3, 1960, was look up the word estimable because I didn’t know what it meant. I thought, wow,
she’s estimable. Maybe I am. [Laughter]
The next day it was the Fourth of July. We went to the colored picnic. I had my dad stop
at Red Bull’s Newsstand, which today would be a convenience store. Red Bull’s was of
Irish descent. I asked daddy if he could get me a composition book. He didn’t ask why.
He said sure. That night in front of our black and white television, I interviewed my parents
about what only years later I would learn is called one’s genealogy or one’s family
tree. I wanted to know what my connection was to this woman, when had she been a slave,
and then to her son Edward Gates who was born in slavery. He died five years before I was
born. And Maude Scott. These are my great grandparents. My daughter’s third generation
Maude. My daughter’s having a baby November 11.
[Applause] So that’s good.
That’s our farm at Patterson’s Creek, West Virginia, on the South Branch Potomac where
my dad was born. That’s a close-up of Pop Gates, as he was called. That’s his son. And
he had seven sons. And my daddy was the seventh son.
I wanted to know what my connection was to this woman who was a slave, who was brown,
and then how someone with my traits, my type, could be descended from somebody who looks
like that. So that was it. With no explanation, I just wanted to connect.
Now, I was only 9. So I would lose the composition book. But I never lost the interest. When
the thought would occur, I would get a new composition book and I’d sit in front of our
TV and interview my mom and dad. And I can get back to my great, great grandmother on
my dad’s side to Jane and to my great, great grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s
side. But that was it. Well, cut to 1977. What’s the greatest thing
happening in history of television? “Roots.” So you could say I had one serious case of
“Root” envy. I wanted to be like Alex Haley and find the slave ship my ancestors came
on and then reverse the middle passage metaphorically and find the group in Africa. Nobody could
do that but Alex Haley. Right? And Quincy Jones introduced me to Alex. Such a nice guy.
I stopped hating him. [Laughter]
Because he was so nice. Because he had figured out this thing that no other AfricanAmerican
had ever been able to do, figure out. The Bible says be careful what you wish for. Right?
See that? All the sisters say, “That’s right. That’s right.”
[Laughter] I love you. You’re great.
The year 2000, I get a letter from Washington, D.C. It is from Dr. Rick Kittles who is a
black geneticist working at Howard University. Dear Dr. Gates, have you ever seen “Roots?”
I’m saying, what kind of idiot do you think I am? He said — now the letter continued
— we had never met. Just cold letter. Snail mail letter. Now we can do in a laboratory
what Alex Haley did through the archives. And I’m looking. He said, “I’m trying to get
a sample of 2,000 black men. And I’m writing to prominent African-Americans –” I’m glad
he thought I was an African-American — “and asking them to volunteer.” And he said, “I
haven’t been able to get anybody to do it.” I was thinking, what kind of fools, my people,
have they become? Who doesn’t want to know this? He said, “We can tell you” — used the
word tribe, “what tribe or ethnic group that you descend from in Africa.”
This is like wow. So I called him. I said, “This is Henry Louis Gates. I will fly you
to Boston. You got to come tomorrow because I want to know.” Unbeknownst to him I had
this passion for genealogy. So he came up. Now, you see, I should have known there was
a reason that no other black man was stupid enough to respond to this letter. For those
of you who are — you see I have great veins. Right? And I’ve — I had a misdiagnosed broken
hip when I was 14. So I had several hip operations. And they never have trouble finding my veins,
just never. Just have great veins. The only person who ever tried to extract blood from
me who had trouble finding my veins was Dr. Rick Kittles. Rick’s many things but a brilliant
extractor of blood he is not. After 45 minutes of this brother poking my arm, I said, damn,
I don’t want to know where I’m from in Africa. [Laughter]
Kunta Kinte, you can have it. I’m a black American.
[Laughter] Then, in the year 2000, you get a sufficient
amount of tissue to analyze your DNA. They had to take different vials of blood. But
now you just spit in a test tube, swab your cheek. But not then.
Finally he had enough blood. And these were the days, man, you could just put the blood
in a cooler with some dry ice and jump on the airplane. Remember that? Every time I
think about this, it’s so — 9/11 changed everything.
So anyway. He jumped on the plane. He goes back to DC. He’s going to analyze my DNA.
Six months come and go and I don’t hear from Rick Kittles. I’m calling this brother all
the time. I was married this time. I asked my wife,
“Why hasn’t this brother called me?” I said, “What can I do?” She said call him from a
different phone. [Laughter]
I swear to God she did. So the next day I called him from a different phone. “Rick Kittles.”
[Laughter] I said, “Rick, it’s Gates.” He said, “Man,
I was just about to call.” [Laughter]
I go, “Yeah, yeah. Where am I from in Africa, man? Where am I from?” At the time they were
just analyzing your mitochondrial DNA which you get from your mother, your identical genetic
signature. You inherited male or female from your mother. She got it from her mother all
the way back. So obviously you could trace lineage that way. It basically never changes
or changes so slowly that –for all intents and purposes the changes are irrelevant.
He said, “I haven’t called you because your results were so anomalous that we had to run
it several, several times. Right? But you,” he said, “are descended from the Nubian people.”
Now, all black Americans want to be descendant either from the Zulus or the Nubian people.
For those who don’t know why, Zulu, Chaka Zulu was the great king. He consolidated all
of these ethnic groups in what is now South Africa. He’s ferocious. The spear. He was
a bad brother. So you wanted to be from the warrior class or the Nubians who were the
black pharaohs. People argue what Egyptians look like. News flash. Evolution doesn’t work
that quickly. Egyptians today look like Egyptians 2,000 3,000 years ago. But 25th dynasty without
a doubt, black pharoahs. So you could go home and Google Taharqa, in the Book of Isiah,
in The Old Testament. It’s often known as the Ethiopian dynasty. Ethiopia is a word,
a euphemism, for black because it’s a Greek word meaning burnt face.
So one of these two groups. He said to me, “Oh, man, all black nationals want to be Nubians.
My good friend, we argue all the time. He wanted to be Nubian but he’s not. Only you
are. You’re the only one.” I said, “Damn, I am the only one. I am a Nubian prince.”
That’s what I’m talking about. So this made me very happy. I forgot the fact that he wouldn’t
return my phone calls for six months. Shortly after this phone call I got a letter,
certifying that I was a descendant from the Nubian people. So I showed it to my dear friend
Anthony, a brilliant philosopher, whose uncle at the time was the king of the Ashanti people
who sits on a gold stool. Right? Anthony is Anglo-African. His grandfather was Sir Cripps.
So he was an aristocrat on both sides. I showed him my certificate saying I was on my mother’s
line from the Nubian people. Kwame looked at it, looked at me and said, “What a ton
of rubbish.” [Laughter]
I said, “You just jealous, man. I am Nubian. That’s the way it is.”
Well, when we subsequently gave Oprah her DNA test, Oprah, Oprah — we gave her DNA
test one day. The next day she flew to South Africa to announce that she was going to build
a school. Her great school for girls.So I’m watching. I’m a news junky. I got TVs everywhere.
In my study I just have CNN on all the time. So I’m sitting there watching. It’s Oprah
and Mandela. Oprah is in this amphitheater, 75,000 people or so. She’s announcing that
President Mandela had asked her to build this school and she was going to build this school.
And then she then, to my surprise, “Yesterday I took a DNA test.” I went, whoa. And she
said and the results were in. I go, whoa. And she said she was pleased to announce that
she was descended from the Zulu people. And all of these South Africans went nuts! They
went crazy. Everybody jumped up. And you know how CNN does? Oprah Winfrey Zulu. Like, my
God. I picked up the phone and called Rick. “Did you tell Oprah she was a Zulu?” “No,
that’s crazy.” I said — he said, “Why.” I said, “She just told the world she was Zulu.”
I didn’t know what to do. I was panicked. “Rick, is there anybody in your lab?” He goes,
“No.” I said, “Make her a Zulu.” [Laughter]
I figured he was back there with darts throwing –I don’t know if this stuff really worked.
I didn’t really say that but I felt like saying that. I tell you that.
Anyway. Oprah was not a Zulu. And I was not a Nubian. It would take a while to figure
that out. We’ll get to that in a minute. So a little bit after that, I got up in the
middle of the night frankly, to go to the bathroom. And I’m standing in my bathroom.
And an idea hit me that was a gift from God, without a doubt. And that was that I could
combine this passion that I had had since July 3, 1960, to trace ancestry with this
new science of ancestry tracing through DNA. And I’d get eight prominent African-Americans,
and I would trace their family tree using the paper trail back to slavery. And when
it disappeared in the abyss of slavery, I would analyze their DNA and reveal what group
they were from in Africa. And I was so excited. Tears ran down my face.
The next day I called my friend Quincy Jones. Now, Quincy is a jazz musician. So he’s up
all night. And Quincy goes to bed when the sun comes up. And so you can’t deal with Quincy
until about 3:00 in the afternoon. So I called — waited until 3:00. I could barely contain
myself. 3:00 I called. Quincy’s person answered the phone. Got him on the line. I said, “Q,
what if I could do for you what Alex did for himself?” Quincy, who we tend to forget, scored
the music for ” Roots,” he said, “Could you do that?” I go, “We can do it.” I didn’t know
if we could do it. But I go we can do it. [Laughter]
I said, “If I can raise the money, would you run a series?” He goes, “I’m in.”
So I wanted Quincy. I love Quincy. He’s a genius. He’s a dear, dear friend. I wanted
him in for himself. But I also wanted him in, I have to admit, for another reason. What
was that other reason? Who’s Quincy Jones’ best friend? Oprah. So I waited about 45 seconds.
I was like looking at my watch. How are you doing, Quincy? How’s Michael? We got to 45
seconds. I said, “Would you ask Oprah if she would be in the series?” And just quickly,
he said, “No.” [Laughter]
“But,” he said,”I’ll do you one better. I’m not going to ask her but I’ll give you her
secret name and address.” I said, “What am I supposed to do with that?” He said, “Write
her a letter.” A snail mail letter. I thought, man, I’ve been given a lot in my life but
never like this. That to me was the equivalent of putting a message in the bottle and throwing
it into the Chesapeake. Ok, Q. Thanks a lot. I thought, well, it was a good idea and one
that would never materialize. I waited about a week. It was gnawing at me. I go, what the
hell? Answer no already. I might as well write the letter. You never know. Maybe a miracle
will happen. So I wrote this letter. Nothing happened. Silence. Two weeks later, it was
a Sunday. And my cell phone rang. I looked at it, Quincy. “Q, what’s up?” A deep female
voice said, “Dr. Gates, this is Oprah Winfrey.” [Laughter]
Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! [Applause]
I knew the answer was good because I tell my students, rich people do not call you with
bad news. If you get that call from the 22nd assistant, secretary, the answer is no. If
the big man or the big lady is on the phone, the answer is yes.
Why did I want them? Well, I needed $6 million to do the series. When I walked in to Johnson
& Johnson and Coca-Cola — they were the first two sponsors that we pitched. Ladies and gentlemen,
you see those three lights up there? Imagine that middle panel of lights, imagine that
opened up and a giant ATM machine slowly lowered. How much you need? $6 million?
[Laughter] So we got — I had Oprah and I had Quincy.
Whoopi Goldberg heard about the series from Oprah, called my office about a thousand times.
So I let her in. Ben Carson and I were classmates at Yale. And Ben, of course, before he became
a Republican — [Laughter]
I love Ben. [Laughter]
Ben, if you’re listening, I love you. I love you, Ben. Ben is why Candy and I have known
each other since 1969. He’s great. He’s a genius. But I wanted to disappoint the expectation,
the stereotypes about our people. So I wanted the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns
Hopkins in the series, the man the first person in the world to successfully separate Siamese
twins joined at the brain. Mae Jemison. So came to Harvard Square just to meet me. I
wouldn’t even take the call. I thought it was a prank. I got to know him. And then Bishop
— T.D. is my man. He is from West Virginia. Home boy. Ain’t that many of us. So I had
to take care of him. He’s darker complexion. I wanted a range of African-American skin
types and traits. The rainbow, you know, rainbow coalition of browns.
That was it. We rolled the dice. We did it. We made it up as we went along. We got 8.6
million viewers for a four-hour series. That was great. It was so successful PBS said we
want you to do it again. So I got Don Cheadle, Chris Rock, Reverend Gomes, Tina Turner. I
love Tina Turner. I got a Tina Turner thing. I tried to do DNA own her legs, but she wouldn’t
let me. [Laughter]
When you’re filming somebody, you take a break after about 30 minutes. Just makeup and stuff
like that, the lighting. And she said, “Oh I’m so relieved.” I go, “why, Ms. Turner?”
She said, “I thought you were going to say my daddy wasn’t my daddy. That’s what everybody
This, ladies and gentlemen is a non-paternity event. We don’t reveal that if we find it.
And Morgan Freedman — Chris rock is so crazy. There is no African-American who has ever
been tested who was 100%, none. Not recent African immigrants. But if you descended from
slaves. Right? At Harvard they call them descendants. So if you were here for a long, long time,
no DNA company yet has tested an African-American, no matter how phenotypically African who was
100% sub-Saharan African. Chris Rock was 20% European. Don Cheadle 19%. Chris said, “At
least I ain’t as black as Don.” [Laughter]
I said, “Chris Rock, you need to stop.” Then I got a letter from a lady who identified
herself as being of Russian-Jewish decent. “I’ve always admired you, but you are”a racist.”
Whoa. I’ve been called many things but nobody called me a racist. I read on. She goes, “You
only do black people in your series. How come you don’t do Jewish people? Why don’t you
do white people?” I’m like, whoa, can I do white people? This is not part of my brand.
Right? I am the Chairman of African-American Studies and African Studies, not of white
people studies. So I didn’t think I could pull this off. But being a reasonably ambitious
person, I thought, well, maybe we could expand the brand.
The only reason you could do that is if the sponsors will go along with you because somebody’s
got to write the check to put these things on TV. So I have become really good friends
with a black woman, Ingrid Saunders Jones, President of the Coke Foundation. She — it
was her project. She always made sure Coke renewed their sponsorship. So I called her
and said, “Ingrid, I have to ask you something very delicate.” I said, “We’re friends. Give
it to me straight. I’m holding a letter from this lady who identifies herself as being
Russian-Jewish decent. She says I’m a racist and that we need to do white people and Jewish
people and in the series. What do you think?” There was a long pause. Silence. I thought
the call had dropped. I go,”Ingrid?” “Ingrid?” And then in a very low voice, she said, “A
lot more white people drinking Coke than black people.”
took that as a yes.
So then I had the problem there’s all kinds of white people. How you do pick white people?
I’m an expert on picking black people. How you do pick white people? You know what I
decided? I would do what Noah would do: two Jews, two Catholics. Look at it. There it
is. Yo-yo Ma is my man. He’s a good friend, lives
down the street. He’s Chinese. Kristi Yamaguchi. Mike Nichols, German and Russian-Jewish decent.
Oh, and Dr. Oz is a Muslim. One of the criticisms that we had received, we didn’t do west India.
So Malcolm’s mother is Jamaican. Everybody knows that. And Elizabeth Alexander who read
the poem for President Obama’s first inauguration, who was my student at Yale, her grandfather
was Jamaican, too. And Louise Erdrich. Colbert. Meryl Streep is just a goddess. I didn’t care
what she was. I love Meryl Streep. She’s like my Tina Turner equivalent. And Queen Noor,
a southern Texan roots but also her father was from the Middle East.
So that was it. It was –it was a bigger hit than even the AfricanAmerican line. So PBS
— there was a show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” that appeared on NBC. And in response
it was a weekly show, PBS asked me, gave me my fantasy, a weekly TV show. And it became
“Finding Your Roots.” And you just saw the sizzle reel for first season. And now we just
aired the fourth episode of the second season. And ancestry.com has just committed to three
more years of this. [Applause]
So I’m very happy. Old friends from Harvard right there.
So I wanted to show you the sizzle reel. I just got the thing telling me I need to be
quiet and let you ask me questions. I’d like to show the sizzle reel for the new season.
And then answer your questions. Can we play that, please?
>>Are we good?
>>I’m a little nervous, I will say.>>Are you ready?
>>Where do you think those dark stories come from?
>>Dr. Gates, I could tell you but I’d have to kill you.
[Laughter]>>The suspense is killing me.
written in these walls are the stories that I can explain
>>My man, we are just getting started. leave my heart open
but it stays right here empty for days
>>I’m up for surprises.>>At his funeral there were, like, 100 people.
[Laughter]>>The man wanted us kids because he worked
with the circus and wanted us to be trapeze artists. No way!
>>Skip, I wanted you to see this picture. This is my grandmother.
>>Oh, wow.>>Grew up on a farm. I used to love Uncle
Jim’s tomatoes and putting salt on it.>>Oh, no.
[Laughter]>>He was not down with George Washington.
>>This is the thing I’m most ashamed of. I am humiliated. Because I bleed red, white,
and blue. And this is not the Union Jack. And this is terrible. This is so cool. This
is the way this works. Right? You just tease with the doctor here and a lawyer there and
then all of a sudden you’ve got a slave owner. And then you’ve got a tori.
>>Genealogy giveth and taketh away. [Laughter]
>>Book of life of Anthony Robert Kushner.>>Oh my God. Can I skip to the last page
and see how I die?>>You cannot.
>>How did you find all of this? I can’t believe these documents even exist.
>>Uh-oh.>>This is a total revelation to me.
>>This is a service report of your great, great grandfather. Your family, like a one-family
Confederate Army.>>Oh, great.
>>No way! We’re related.>>You ever hear these names?
>>Almond Bruce French is an awesome name. I wish I knew before I had a son because that
would have been his name. Let’s go.>>You want to find out who wrote it?
>>Yeah.>>Turn the page.
>>What? Come on.>>Your father’s family was Jewish.
>>See. I knew it.>>I grew up with stories, mostly untold,
because they were embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it. It really was a generational
silence, but we knew. We knew.>>This is so cool, man.
>>This is where we edited the films for the last 20 years.
>>My mother died when I was 11.>>Step up to the opportunity. He seized the
moment.>>Glad we could show you that document.
>>Thank you.>>George Washington was still president of
the United States when your grandfather was born.
>>That’s ridiculous.>>Your ancestor was accused of being a spy
and a traitor.>>Look at all of these ancestors. If you
could cook dinner for one person, who would it be?
>>That’s a great question.>>This shows a personal connection.
” the story of my life “>>Isn’t that what you want? Just to be remembered
in some way? 300 years after you die, I’ll take it. You know? I’ll take that.
>>You got to know where you’re from.>>That’s crazy.
>>I feel like I belong to something bigger than me.
>>I feel a renewed interest and pride on this side of the family because I’ve never
known any of this.>>It’s part of my DNA, my history. And somehow
who I am is very related to who these people were. So I feel connected to them.
>>It makes me feel very lucky.>>You see that there’s a real foundation
underneath you.>>This is such a gift that you have given
me.>>It’s amazing that you can do this.
>>How could I not know this? “the story of my life”
>>The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself.
>>My God, that’s a story right there.>>Watching the one with the actress, Khandi
>>That one struck me because not only related to enslaved African-Americans, but went back
on the other side and was related to a slave holder.
>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: That’s right.>>That was really — for Americans, that’s
part of learning our history, I suppose. Do you feel like when you’re working with people
like that, do you — could it in some way affect them in a negative sense when they
learn the truth>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: When they learn
how white they are? A couple of people killed themselves. The beginning of these — well,
I have a whole bunch of statistics, but it goes like this. If I did the DNA of all the
black men in the room, 35% don’t descend from a black man. They descend from a white man
going back to slavery. 35%. It’s one in three, just over one in three. Right? Think of that.
It goes back to a white man impregnating a black woman in slavery.
The average African-American is — it’s right here. 73% black, are African. 24% European,
and only 0.7% Native American. I know all of these black people in here — how many
were raised You have — a few do. But you have — isn’t
that amazing? I asked Chris Rock about this. I said, “Why
do so many black people believe that they are descended from Native-Americans?”They
said it’s easier to invent a punitive, noble savage connection, quote/unquote, as it was
commonly called than to think about rape. And obviously it is. So they were the noble
Indian. Right? Thomas Jefferson called the noble savages
in America. And the Africans were the ignoble savages. So we invented these scenarios. It’s
like your ancestor ran from the plantation, over the hill, and there was the chief, smoking
the peace pipe. He gave his daughter — a noble black man. This didn’t happen. It happened
sometimes. If you were descended from — if you’re from Georgia and Alabama, Mississippi,
the five so-called civilized tribes. You know why they were called that? They were the Crete,
Cherokee. They were called for two or three reasons. One of which was they owned black
slaves. That’s true. So there were black slaves — on the trail, those five tribes that were
kicked off the richest cotton growing soil in the world. That’s what the Trail of Tears
was all about. It was all about the Benjamin. Andrew Jackson, 1830, the Indian Removal Act.
And it was kicking these people off this land and moving them to Indian Territory which
in 1907 became the state of Oklahoma. Right? And they owned slaves. So Don Cheadle’s family
was owned by the Chickasaw. So we have never tested, as I’ve said earlier,
an African-American with a significant amount of European ancestry because of slavery. So
what we do, we will take you back to the 1870 census. It’s very easy — knock on wood. We’ve
never had trouble getting an African-American guest back to the 1870 census. 1870 is when
our ancestors appeared with two names in the federal census because 90% of our ancestors
in the 1860 census war slaves. So they didn’t appear with names. They just were a male or
female, mulatto, black, and with their approximate age. Right? But if you’re a descendant from
a free Negro, they obviously were listed in the census just like white people.
So we go to — we look in the same county in the 1860 census to see if there is a white
slave holder with the same surname. With Oprah we struck gold. Constantine Winfrey, her great,
great grandfather. Living next door to a man named [Inaudible] Winfrey. We look in the
census. [Inaudible] Winfrey owned a male slave 10 years younger than Constantine was in 1870.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this out.
So now what we do, because of the wonders of DNA, we can match your DNA — if you’re
white and from a slave owner, we can match your DNA chaired to a black person who was
owned by that slave owner. That’s what we did with Khandi Alexander. We found a document
where her great, great grandfather said John Harrison was his father. The only John Harrison
was around was white. My God, this is amazing. He clearly was a mulatto. We did a DNA test.
We’ve never had a white person turn us down except for an older white southern woman in
Virginia and her brother who lived I think in Georgia both refused. The man just was
like, no. He wouldn’t even talk to me on the phone. But the woman was very nice. I played
the Oprah card. I said, “You watch “The Oprah show.” She said, “Yeah.” I sent her the DVDs
of all the series. She said”– I waited and called her. She said, ‘Dr. Gates, I’m not
going to do it.” I said, “Why.” She said, “It would embarrass my father.” I said your
father was dead. I didn’t. Wanted to say that. She goes, I — I said, “As I understand it,
your father passed.” She said, “Yes, but he would still be embarrassed so I’m not going
do it.” Other than that people have all said yes.
What’s curious, something I want your opinion about if anybody wants to volunteer one. I’ve
never had a black person didn’t — the funny thing. At the sizzle reel at the top, when
I asked Sam Jackson if he wanted to see if he was descended from the king, that means
that blood, as it were, would have entered through slavery. Right? Some descendant. And
I’ve never had — and most likely through rape. And I’ve never had a black person who
didn’t want to know and didn’t want to meet the white descendants, the man who owned their
ancestor and who quite probably certainly possibly raped their ancestor. Think about
that. It’s very, very curious. They want to know. They want to know what’s on the other
side. They want to lift the veil, establish these relationships. I found that very, very
curious. It’s a long-winded answer to your question.
Tuesday night, 80% European. Does this change the way you think? I’m still black. I’m a
black man. He goes 132. I’m still safe. Really you could be what you want to be. We never
test if you’re 100% European — by the way, these tests are called [Indiscernible] tests.
They go back about 500 years, back to the time of Columbus. Ok? So even if you’re 100%
European, now they could break down European components. So to see if they came from southern
Europe, northern Europe, England, Ireland, Italy. It’s amazing. There’s nobody pure.
Even Colbert was shocked to learn that he was 1A German. He said, “Oh, the heathens
have entered my bloodline, Lutheran.” There is no purity. No matter what the law
was in the day, at night everybody was sleeping with everybody.
[Laughter] That is the bottom line. The quickest way
to get somebody to sleep with somebody is to make it illegal. All they do is think about
it the whole time.>>Hi. My mother and I and other members of
our family have been tracing our genealogy for a couple of years. And she’s gone on her
– pretty far back. We found out that we have some slave owners in genealogy. And that –I
can’t know how many great, great, great grandmothers back, but she had a series of children. She
had one that was mixed due to rape. And that’s kind of where our family started, from the
mixed child. So in addition to that on her father’s side, we actually do have Indian
in our family. She’s from southern Georgia, Thomasville.
>>There you go.>>And we have Seminole in our family. She
comes to the Archives every time she visits me. I’m from North Carolina. And she ran into
a roadblock when she tried to find out more information about my grandmother who is halfIndian
heritage. I want to know what advice you have to assist her in possibly getting beyond that
roadblock when it comes to Native-American records. She wasn’t able to find much information.
>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: If they were documented in the Trail of Tears, then they’re well documented.
Right? But it depends on when the person lived where she lived. Status of Native-Americans
change in different times whether then in the census or not. Have you taken a DNA test
o yet?>>No. We did find out she was sold as a child
to a white family.>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: You should take
a DNA test. You could go to — Ancestry is my sponsor. Full disclosure. But 23andMe.
We test all of our guests with three companies plus Rick’s company. 23andMe, Family Tree
DNA and ancestry.com do the best. They will tell you your percentage of Native-American
ancestry. Then I would go to one of the great genealogical societies. Right here in this
building people can give you great advice. If you were in Boston, New England Genealogical
Society. If you were in Utah, you could go to the History of Library. Make an appointment.
And they will help you go through the records to find them.
>>Thank you.>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Thank you.
>>Final question.>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Ok. And then we
sign books. And then I get to go eat. And drink.
[Laughter] Yes, ma’am?
>>I’m absolutely fascinated with your work. I think you’re amazing. I wanted to know –I
watched your black and Latin America. I loved the diaspora. One, have you ever thought about
taking that series and doing it more internationally, perhaps in Australia or India to sort of talk
about that? And then secondly, have you ever had either a white celebrity who’s had black
in their family who would never think — we would never think or they would never think?
>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: That’s interesting. So my hidden African ancestry. 4% of white
people in America have at least 1% African DNA. And 1% African ancestry indicates an
African ancestor within the last six generations or last 200 years. South Carolina, 13% of
self-identified white Americans have 1%.>>They sure do.
>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: In Louisiana, 12% of white people have 1% or more.
>>I believe that.>>Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: In Georgia, etc.,
etc. And the average amount of African ancestry and African-Americans as you saw on the earlier
side is 73%. So not yet. Not yet. You know what? Albert Murray, who’s the great
writer who died last year I guess or two years ago, who was Ralph Ellison’s best friend,
watched all the series. Every time I revealed a white person they were 100% European, they
go, “Oh, no. Man, I wanted to have a little bit of black.”
[Laughter] Just a little bit. Not too much but just a
little bit. [Laughter]
So he said to me, “This is the first time white people ever been disappointed they not
black.” But we will find one. They’re out there and there are lots of people who passed
and don’t even know. They take the test and think the test is broken. We haven’t had any
in our series yet. Anyway, every Tuesday night, 8:00, we have
six more — five more episodes. I hope you watch. Thanks. You’ve been a great audience.