Helping Celebrities Find Their Roots

Journalist Barbara Walters, Congressman John Lewis, and comedian Margaret Cho will join scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to trace their family trees. His new PBS series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. , premiers this weekend. Gates discusses the series with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will get some updates on stories we've covered on the program and we'll hear from listeners. That's in just a few minutes on BackTalk.

But first, we are going to talk about new information about America's family tree. For many people, the most important story in their lives is their family's story told by elders, traced in yellowing documents and letters bundled in shoeboxes in attacks.

But what if you could take that search further, enlist historians, dive in archives, use the latest DNA technology to tell a more complete story, one that could even stretch back for centuries? That's what more than a dozen prominent Americans do in the new series "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr." Guests include Dr. Sanjay Gupta, actor Kevin Bacon, Newark Mayor Cory Booker. They trace the surprising and sometimes heartbreaking journeys of their forbearers.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the executive producer, writer and presenter of the series. It's his fourth project exploring the American story through the family histories of prominent Americans. Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. from Harvard University. He joins us now from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Professor Gates, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Hi. Thanks for having me on your program.

MARTIN: Now, this is not your first series of - with this particular format - exploring the family histories of prominent Americans. How did you get so fascinated with genealogy?

GATES: I got fascinated with genealogy, Michel, when I was nine years old and I remember exactly the date. It was July 3, 1960 and it was the day that we were burying my father's father, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, my grandfather. And I was standing at his casket holding my father's hand and looking at him and trying to figure out why he looked so white. He looked like a ghost.

And the next day, I got a composition book and came home and interviewed my parents about their family trees. I wanted to know how I was connected to this man and my father that night told me and my brother that we were descendents from a slave named Jane Gates and he showed us her obituary and it said died this day, January 6, 1888, Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman. An estimable colored woman.

And, that night, before I went to bed, Michel, I looked up the word estimable because I didn't know what it meant. And you could say I've been a genealogy junkie since that day and it's one of the blessings of my life to be able to introduce other Americans to their long lost ancestors.

MARTIN: What makes this series different from your previous projects, apart from the fact that you are exploring the genealogies of people - not just African-Americans, but other groups, as well? What also make this series different?

GATES: Good question. We completely reinvented the format. We now have two or three guests per episode and - who are connected either because, like in Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, they're married.

But, usually, it's because of an internal connection, an aspect of the story that links them to each other, like Barbara Walters and Geoffrey Canada. You look at them and say, what do they have in common? Well, they both have families that changed their name several times and we actually found their original names for both of them. For Barbara Walters, it was Von Vasser. She had no idea. We found the original shtetls on the border of Belarus and Lithuania that her ancestors were from. She thought her original family name was Abramovich. I gave her her father's birth certificate in London on camera from 1894.

And Geoffrey Canada knew nothing about the Canada line. He didn't even know his grandfather's name because his father Matt Canada walked out on the family when Geoffrey was just four or five years old. And we found Geoffrey's line all the way back to slavery.

And, Michel, we do the neatest thing. There's a new technique called analyzing autosomal DNA and I won't bore you with the details, but it means that we can look at your genome and another person's genome and see if you're related. And we did that in two cases. We proved that Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown, is actually descended from the slave master who owned her ancestor because we traced the white descendent of the slave master and matched their DNA. It was a slam dunk.

And the story for Cory Booker is so amazing. Cory Booker's mother's father, Cory's maternal grandfather named Limary(ph) Jordan, was born in 1916. In 1929, his mother took him to the local doctor in Columbia, Louisiana. And after his exam, she took him out in the street and she said, Limary, I'm going to tell you something you can't tell anybody. And he said, what? She said, that man is your father. And she was married to a black man and had an older child and Limary always looked different and took a lot of flack for that.

Well, we went back to the record for Columbia, Louisiana. There were only three doctors. One was a vet, one was too old to be doing the boogaloo with anybody and so that left Dr. Steven Brown. And we tracked down white descendents of Steven Brown and gave them a DNA test and matched them against Cory's DNA and Cory's mother's DNA. And, Michel, Cory's mother and this descendent of Steven Brown are first cousins.

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

GATES: (Unintelligible) true.

MARTIN: Wow. That is amazing. There are some really emotional - this can be a very emotional journey for people...

GATES: People cry.

MARTIN: ...which is - they do. Well, I just want to play a short clip from the episode that airs this weekend and you feature civil rights pioneer Congressman John Lewis, who of course is a hero of the civil rights movement, subjected to...

GATES: Right.

MARTIN: ...violence from police and others. At one point, you discover that Lewis has an ancestor, a former slave who registered to vote in 1867.

GATES: That's right.

MARTIN: He had a very emotional reaction to this. I'll just play a very short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "FINDING YOUR ROOTS WITH HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.")

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: Knowing that a member of my family registered and voted in Alabama 100 years before I did, before my mother, my father, my grandparents, it's amazing.

MARTIN: Are you sometimes surprised at what it is that evokes emotion in people?

GATES: Oh, my God, yes. I mean, John Lewis cried three times. He cried at that very moving moment that you just shared with your listeners. He cried when I showed him the oldest slave ancestor, a man named Shipman(ph) from 1822. And then he cried when he found out that, as soon as they were freed in 1865, his great-great-grandparents, Tobias and Elizabeth Carter, got married at the age of 45 years old.

Now, you know, we've all heard these things about the dysfunctional slave family. These slaves obviously were in love. They were a couple. They had children. And as soon as they could, they legalized their relationship, and John wept at that.

Cory wept because he was sad that his grandfather was dead. He didn't know the name of this man, that this mystery - here's a man, Michel, who left a 58 page manuscript with a story in it so that everybody would find it. He couldn't have imagined what we can do now with the science, but he left the record so that we could prove it and we proved it. That's just such a gift to be able to give to someone.

Even Stephen Colbert, in the last series, when I showed him his Irish immigrant ancestors' citizenship record when - the day he became a citizen. He was moved to tears. He said that was the greatest thing he had ever seen in his life.

So you never know what's going to get a rise out of people, but everybody is emotionally affected. We've never had anybody who had any regrets. We never had anybody who pulled out. You know, I mean, people just - and we've never had anybody that we - about whom we did not find fascinating stories and because - when I started this series, Michel, in 2005, it took months and months and months to track people's family trees. Now you can do it, sometimes, in minutes. You still have to go to archives, but so many records have been digitized through Ancestry.com and Archives.com.

One of these companies - they're all paid companies. I don't have any financial relationship to them. And you pay for a month's subscription, you go online and type in your grandparents' name and it will connect you to everything, every paper record in their database. That didn't exist when we were starting and they are doing things now that didn't even exist, like this autosomal test, when we started the series. So, you know, we've hit a wave and we're part of that wave and we're benefiting from the wave, as well.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what's the most interesting genealogical discovery? The most interesting genetic discovery you've made so far? You've been at this for a while, as we said.

GATES: Yeah. Well, it's hard. It's like deciding which child you love so much, but I love all the stories. But I have to say that Wanda Sykes' story, which the Times wrote about this past Tuesday, is an amazing genealogical story.

It turns out that Wanda - we were able - for African-Americans, usually, we can get back to great-great or great-great-great grandparents because our slave ancestors didn't have legal names and they weren't listed legally in the federal census and in many other documents.

But Wanda Sykes, it turns out, we were able to trace back to her ninth great grandmother, a woman named Elizabeth Banks, because she was white and she had a baby in 1683 with a black slave - an unnamed black slave who would have been Elizabeth's ninth great grandfather. And we know about this because she was penalized. It was against the law and she was punished with 39 lashes – 39 lashes. And she was an indentured servant, probably from Scotland, and that means that Wanda has the oldest continuously documented family tree of any African-American we've ever tested.

And, secondly, one of the shortest experiences in slavery. Wanda's ninth great grandfather was probably first generation or, at most, second generation from Africa and that means that all of Wanda's ancestors were free back to 1683. Now, who would ever imagine that looking at Wanda Sykes up there being so irreverent on the stage?

And in terms of the DNA stories, we proved - you know Linda Chavez, the great Fox News commentator. That Linda Chavez always had these stories in her family that her ancestors from Spain would turn the Catholic statues, the images of saints, to the wall, and when someone died, they would veil the mirror. And so they thought, well, maybe they were Jewish.

Well, it turns out that we proved through the genealogical record that they were, indeed, one branch Jewish. They were called the Conversos. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, after they funded Columbus, also expelled all the Jews from Spain and either you converted to Roman Catholicism or they - you know, they would burn you at the stake.

And so her ancestors converted. They were Jewish, but they became Roman Catholics. They moved to what was called New Spain, Mexico, and then moved to New Mexico in what became the United States, and they married a prominent - a Catholic family, but of a lower class.

And Linda, when she got married all these 500 years later, marries a Jewish man, converts to Judaism and then converts back. But it turns out, when we did her DNA, Michel, she's 20 percent Jewish.

MARTIN: Fascinating.

GATES: Isn't that amazing? And they had no idea. They had this vague family myth, but it turns out they were, indeed, descended from Conversos Jews forced to convert. And then we have, in the same episode, the last episode - we have Linda Chavez, Adrian Grenier, the star of "Entourage," and Michelle Rodriguez.

It turns out that, unbeknownst to them, that Linda and Adrian are genetic cousins. They share long segments of DNA on their 13th chromosome, which means that they have a common ancestor. And we were able to identify that ancestor, a man named Diego de Montoya(ph), who was born in what's now Mexico in Texcoco, New Spain in the year 1596, which means that Linda Chavez and Adrian Grenier are ninth cousins, twice removed. Montoya's Linda's eighth great grandfather and Adrian's 10th great grandfather. Now, you can't get better than that.

MARTIN: And you are as fascinated as ever, I can see.

GATES: Oh, I love it. It's like being Santa Claus, bringing gifts to people that I admire, people I've always wanted to meet, and I think that doing your family tree is the most important thing any American can do to understand who they are, where they've been and where they're going.

MARTIN: "Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr." debuts this Sunday night on PBS. You'll want to check your local listings for more information.

Professor Gates, thank you so much for joining us once again.

GATES: Thank you, Michel. I love being on your program. I'll be on any time you ask me.

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