LYNN NEARY, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. can pinpoint when his career as an historian began. It was almost 50 years ago - the day his grandfather died. That was when Gates first saw a photo of his great-great-grandmother, a former slave. He vividly recalls the sense of passion and wonderment he felt to learn of his connection to an actual slave. Many years later, Gates' fascination with his own ancestors led to a PBS series on the family histories of a number of well-known African-Americans, from Maya Angelou to Chris Rock.
Using both traditional and cutting-edge techniques of genealogical research, Gates unpeeled the layers of their family trees and helped them to reclaim their past. Gates expands on what he learned through that research in his latest book - "In Search of Our Roots." Later, "Yes, Pecan" - cashing in on the new president. But first, "In Search of Our Roots." Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. And he joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Welcome to the program. Good to have you with us.
Professor HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. (Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University): Thanks so much, Lynn. It's nice to be back on the program.
NEARY: Something I wanted to - that I found so striking about this work is the way in which the individual stories that you uncover through your research also create this much larger history of African-Americans in this country. And one of the - one of the people who you researched where this was very striking was with the comedian, Chris Rock, because, through his family story, you really were able to illustrate the history of free blacks in the Civil War and in Reconstruction. I found that totally fascinating.
Prof. GATES: Well, thank you. You know, my goal - you could say that since 1977, I've had one bad case of "Roots" envy. (Laughing) That's of course, was the year that Alex Haley did his miniseries and published his book. And as you said, I became fascinated with my own family history the day - literally, the day my grandfather died in June of 1960, and my dad, who's still very much alive - 95 and a half years old - showed my brother and me a picture of Jane Gates. And the very next day, I started with just a spiral composition book making my family tree on the Coleman side, my mother's side, and the Gates side.
And as luck would have it, because of the sophisticated developments in DNA analysis, I was able to combine this interest in genealogy on the one hand, and a newfound interest in DNA analysis to help other people find their roots, both deep into slavery, and then, when the paper trail ends, across the ocean to Africa. I want to give black people their history back. And for most of us, as you know, we think of black history as Frederick Douglas or Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, or Mary McLeod Bethune, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
But what about Lynn Neary's ancestors? What about Henry Louis Gates' ancestors? What about Chris Tucker's ancestors - the individuals that make up your own family tree? And the most astonishing thing that I've discovered is that it's a new way of reconstructing the collective narrative of African-American people. Let's take Chris Rock's ancestor, Julius Caesar Tingman. This is one of the most moving moments for me in either of the "African American Live" series. Chris had no more idea that this man existed than the man in the moon and he - his mother's a Tingman.
This man is a slave till the fall of Charleston in March of 1865. Basically, Charleston falls. The next day, he joins the U.S. colored infantry and fights for the freedom of other slaves, and he serves between March 1865 to October 1866. And then this brother, who was illiterate, you know, when he joins the army, in 1872, is elected a representative - a delegate from the House of Representatives in Charleston County in South Carolina. He's reelected again in 1876.
But that's the year that Reconstruction ends, so that he's thrown out, the Democrats take over - the Dixiecrats take over. They throw all the Republicans out. And this man, in 1880, is a dirt farmer. He's a tenant farmer in Berkeley County, South Carolina. And nevertheless, by 1904, when we find him again, Julius Caesar Tingman has picked himself up out of the dirt and has purchased 21 acres of land in Berkeley County, South Carolina. And when he dies in the year 1917, Tingman leaves his family 65 acres of land in that same county, (Laughing) as well as two life insurance policies.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: You know this…
Prof. GATES: Now that's amazing.
NEARY: It is amazing, and I want to play - because we have, from the documentary, we have Chris Rock's - well, he had a couple of reactions. He cried at one point, and then he got mad at another point. But here he is, you know, reacting to what this meant to him to learn out - to learn this history. We're going to play some tape right now from Chris Rock.
(Soundbite of TV show "African American Lives")
Mr. CHRIS ROCK (Comedian; Actor): I mean, it's weird, if I had known this, there's a good chance I wouldn't be a comedian.
Prof. GATES: What would you have become?
Mr. ROCK: Until I lucked into a comedy club at, you know, age 20, just on a whim, I assumed I would pick up things for white people for the rest of my life. If I had known this, it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing.
NEARY: That was comedian Chris Rock in the PBS documentary, an - "African American Lives" talking with our guest, Henry Louis Gates. And Henry Louis Gates did the research into Chris Rock's ancestry, and he's with us now. I was so moved by that, and I didn't even know how to feel about it exactly. But on the one hand - and I think Chris Rock didn't know how to feel either - on one hand, he was thrilled and moved to get this knowledge. On the other hand, he could - you could feel the loss he sensed that he hadn't known it before.
Prof. GATES: I think the biggest surprise for me, Lynn - when I pitched the series, I conceived of the series that - which - and the book, of course, is an extension of "African American Lives 1" and "African American Lives 2." It's sort of the companion book now to both of the series. But when I conceived of it, interestingly enough, I thought that the more interesting half of the series would be the revelation of each person's African roots, that, you know - the Kunta Kinte moment, as it were.
But you know, the big surprise is that Africa, as Countee Cullen put it in the Harlem Renaissance, so far, so long away is Africa. That - the revelation of your tribal ancestry is so much more abstract than is the revelation of your actual kinspersons - your blood relatives on your family tree, people whose names that we can restore.
So nobody - I've had 19 guests in both of these series, and 19 chapters in the book - nobody cries when I tell them that they are descended from the Luba people or the - in Oprah's case, the Pelay(ph) people or the Ebo people. But almost everybody cries when I reveal their ancestries back in slavery. And these are well-educated, well-heeled people. And they don't know anything, virtually, about their families past their grandparents, or maybe their great-grandparents.
NEARY: Another stunning moment was when the actor Don Cheadle learned that his ancestors were slaves, not of white plantation owners, but of Native Americans.
Prof. GATES: Yeah. It's - you know, there's - one of the - genealogists say that there are three big myths in black genealogy. And the biggest one is that we all have a grandmother or great-grandmother with high cheek bones and straight black hair. (Laughing) But DNA analysis reveals that only 5 percent of the African-American people have a significant amount of Native American ancestry.
But little known to most African-Americans who fantasize this rebel kinship when slaves would run away from the white man and sneak out to the Indian tribe, and they would all smoke the peace pipe and woof on white people, which, you know, basically, only rarely, rarely happened - maybe with the Seminoles in Florida but to just a small extent. They don't realize that the five civilized tribes, which are made famous, of course - or infamous - by the Trail of Tears - the Creek, the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw and the Seminole - that they owned slaves. And that's why they were called quote, unquote, the civilized tribes, by white people.
And Don Cheadle's ancestors, Mary Kemp and Henderson Cheadle, were both born in Indian territory, which became, in the early 20th century, the state of Oklahoma. Mary was born around 1854 and Henderson around 1846. And their parents were marched from Mississippi and Alabama in the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. And you know, the Trail of Tears was all about removing the Native Americans so that white people could settle on the richest soil, basically, in the world for the growing of cotton. It was all about economics.
And when the Native Americans were forced out of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, et cetera, they took their slaves with them. And Don Cheadle did not know that he is descended from African-Americans who were enslaved by the Chickasaw people in Oklahoma. There is even a Cheadle Avenue in the town that his ancestors are from. And he had no idea that this is the case.
NEARY: We're talking with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about his book "In Search of our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past." If you're interested in talking with Henry Louis Gates about your own genealogy or have you ever tried to trace your own family roots and discovered something unexpected or - about your own personal history? Give us a call. The number is 989-8255. And you can also reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And also, Mr. Gates - Professor Gates, you've also discovered in this research how much European - there's a strong European connection with the African-American community.
Prof. GATES: Oh, absolutely. In fact, whereas every African-American - whatever I get - (Laughing) I lecture about this subject all over the country. And I'll ask for the lights to - in the house to be turned on, and I'll say, every African-American who has Native American ancestry, please raise your hand. And everybody invariably raised their hand - raises their hand. Then I say, none of you all have Native American ancestry, but you all have white or European ancestry.
If we - I was watching the Lakers on Sunday. If I did the Y-DNA of each of the Laker players, that is - you inherit your - a male inherits Y-DNA from his father's father's father's line - if I did the Y-DNA of all the black Lakers, 25 percent will trace their male lineage back to Europe. And in fact, that's the case for me. I mean, I have the something called the Oneal haplotype, which 8 percent of the men in Ireland have, which means that Jane Gates was impregnated by an Irish man.
NEARY: All right, hold that thought. I'm curious to explore that further, but we're going to have to take a short break now. And we'll be talking more with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a moment. We'll also be joined by radio host Tom Joyner, and he'll tell us about what he learned about his family roots. Stay with us. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. set out to make history personal in his "African American Lives" documentaries on PBS. He's got a new book out that tells the stories he uncovered by tracing the DNA and the roots of a number of well-known African-Americans. The book is called "In Search of Our Roots."
We want to hear your stories about your search for your past. Have you tried to trace your family's roots by DNA or other methods? And if so, what have you learned? The number's 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-8255, or send us an email to email@example.com. And join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation.
And I wanted to ask you, Professor Gates, about your methodology a little bit, because I've been blithely saying he traced the DNA, and I don't really understand how that worked at all. How did you trace that DNA? How do you use DNA to trace people's family roots?
Prof. GATES: Good question. We used several of the standard DNA testing services, and I have to say, at this point, though not - it wasn't involved in any of the testing of the - any of my guests, but I'm part-owner now of a DNA testing company. I won't mention the name, so I don't want to be accused of (Laughing) advertising for my own company.
But we had three or four testing services, just to double check, because different companies have different databases - just to be as accurate scientifically as possible. And this is the way it works: You go to Nigeria, and you get the DNA samples of a lot of people and ask them what their tribe or ethnic group is. And they say Ebo. And essentially - you know, you've seen "CSI." You take DNA of an African-American, you put it in a computer, and if it matches up according to certain markers or snips, then you have an ancestor in common. And that's the best that you can tell someone.
You could say you are walking around - there is, walking around on the African continent, a person that matches your mitochondrial DNA, which you get from your mother, or your Y-DNA, which you get from your father, and that person describes himself as an Ebo. And today - and that means that most probably - well, it means exactly that you have an ancestor in common, and most probably, that an ancestor who came to the United States 300 years ago was an Ebo person. That's how it works.
And it's fascinating. It's the closest that we've ever been able to come to reversing the Middle Passage. It's the closest we've ever been able to come to putting a name to what Malcolm Little, when he changed his name, termed the Great X - Malcolm X. The - our lost names, our lost African names, our lost tribal identities, which is why "Roots," of course, was such a worldwide phenomenon. You are turning the clock back. And now we can do "Roots" in a test tube, "Roots" for the 21st century in a way that my dear friend Alex Haley could never have imagined.
NEARY: All right. Well, joining us now by phone from Dallas is Tom Joyner, host of the nationally syndicated radio program "The Tom Joyner Morning Show." Good to have you with us.
Mr. TOM JOYNER (Radio Host, "The Tom Joyner Morning Show"): And Skip Gates changed my life.
NEARY: Yeah. How did he change your life? Explain that - what you mean by that.
Mr. JOYNER: OK. "African American Lives 2" - I'm one of the celebrities that he does the genealogy.
Mr. JOYNER: And I didn't know where all this success and all this philanthropy came from. You know, I thought it came from my environment because I come from a rich town in Alabama, deep in the heart of Dixie, rich with black history. I am a Tuskegean.
Prof. GATES: (Laughing) Yeah.
Mr. JOYNER: And not only am I from Tuskegee, but my parents - both parents - came to Tuskegee to be a part of the Tuskegee Airmen program.
NEARY: Mm hmm.
Mr. JOYNER: So, I thought it all came from this environment of a can-do attitude, you know. But when I did the genealogy with Skip and the people that he had out in Utah - oh, man. It let me know where everything - I admit, I didn't know a whole lot about DNA. As much as I knew about DNA, I got from the O.J. trial.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Well, you're…
Mr. JOYNER: But you do the DNA - you know, what he was just talking about, you know, you put "Roots" in a test tube. I mean, it is amazing. And he took me all the way back - he took me all the way back to Africa. And…
Prof. GATES: And - and Lynn, we even found - you know, Tom has - Tom, what color are eyes? Are they blue or green, or blue-green?
Mr. JOYNER: Yeah, they're kind of grayish.
Prof. Gates: Yeah, kind of gray. And no one in your family, right, has these eyes?
Mr. JOYNER: Right.
Prof. GATES: And we found, Lynn -we found Tom's maternal third great-grandfather - great-great-great-grandfather - named John Hall, who was a very distinguished Supreme Court justice from North Carolina. And we have his portrait. And Tom's eyes - it looked like they were plucked out of the portrait and just plastered on the boy's face. Wasn't that amazing, Tom?
Mr. JOYNER: Yeah, it was very amazing because this guy had hair.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOYNER: And I used to have hair.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOYNER: And when I had hair, my hairline came to a peak - some people call it a widow's peak. And this guy has hair. And no one in my family - I've never seen anybody in my family with this widow's peak, least of all these eyes. And there's this guy looking like me a hundred years ago.
Prof. GATES: (Laughing) That's true.
NEARY: Now, the other part of your story, though, Tom, that was very interesting was you discovered a very dark part of your family's history about two of - I don't know whether they were great-great uncles or…
Prof. Gates: Great uncles.
NEARY: Great uncles. Who had - well, you can tell us the story. What did you discover? What was uncovered about that?
Mr. JOYNER: Well, black people don't like to talk about the past. What Alex Haley did was not typical of a black family. Right, Skip?
PROF. GATES: That's right, totally atypical.
Mr. JOYNER: Right, because black families like to keep things very positive. They don't talk about the bad things. And so, my father, who was a single child of my grandfather and grandmother, never knew any if his relatives. He just knew he was born in Plant City, Florida to two people. Well, it turned out that my grandmother came to Plant City, Florida because she was getting away from all the white people in this South Carolina town that had accused my two uncles - my great uncles of murdering a civil rights - (Laughing) civil rights…
Prof. GATES: A Confederate.
Mr. JOYNER: A Civil War veteran. These two gentlemen - these two black gentlemen, my great uncles, were law-abiding, land-owning, everybody loved them, and they were accused and convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a Civil War veteran.
NEARY: How did that affect your family to learn that - to learn that story, to find out that information?
Mr. JOYNER: I was choked up, and we immediately went to work. And with the help of some lawyers that Skip hooked us up with, we're now petitioning the state of South Carolina to get my uncles…
Prof. GATES: Exonerated.
Mr. JOYNER: Exonerated.
NEARY: So, these stories of the past, Henry Louis Gates, these stories of the past can still have a real effect on what happens in the present?
Prof. GATES: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, Lynn, we never - of the 19 guests that I've had, I've never had stories - I mean, Tom had two remarkably dark stories on his family tree. I mean, Tom and Meeks Griffin(ph) were framed by a black man - a black man named John Monk Stevenson, who most probably did it. The night of April 14th, 1913, in Chester, South Carolina, a Confederate veteran named John Lewis(ph) was murdered. He clearly was murdered by some black people. They arrested John Monk Stevenson, and he framed the two richest Negroes in the county, and they were Tom Joyner's great uncles. And we - I had to show Tom on camera the news article - front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 29th, 1915 - five Negroes executed and - with protestations of innocence on their lips.
NEARY: Yeah, that was amazing.
Prof. GATES: And their attorneys only had two days to defend, and they were clearly framed. It was a two-year appeal process. Even the rich white people in their hometown said, the men - these men were innocent, and yet there weren't. And now we are able to go back - we've appealed to Governor Mark Sanford in the state and - with the support of Representative James Clyburn. And we are definitely - well, we all hope that justice will now be done and that these men will be exonerated.
NEARY: Amazing story. I want to get a call in here because we have people waiting to talk to you and I don't want to run out of time. We've got Linda holding on from Kansas City, Missouri. Linda, go ahead.
LINDA (Caller): Yes, I've been doing some work trying to trace my family's background. My mother passed away recently, and she was the last of what I call her generation. I've been able to have pretty good luck going back and finding people on my grandmother's side. I have both her obituary program and the obituary program of her husband.
But the problem I run into is, when I'm trying to look for him and his people, I'm running into difficulty. And I wanted some direction on how do you trace or go through the slave record. Folks that you have done already can afford to do the whole DNA thing, but I'm just an ordinary, common African-American female who wants to know more about who my people are. I believe my great-grandfather was married to an Indian woman. We saw where he left Louisiana in 1884…
Prof. GATES: Mm hmm.
LINDA: And went west. By 1885, he was back in Louisiana. So - but my grandfather had a very common last name, which was White.
Prof. GATES: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
LINDA: So that - it's making it really difficult and frustrating to actually pinpoint, you know, where he's from and who his people were.
NEARY: Any advice?
Prof. GATES: Yes. Are you using ancestry.com?
LINDA: Yes, I've got everything laid out on ancestry as far as I could go. But again, all I can find are my grandmother's side of the family.
Prof. GATES: Mm hmm. Well, the only way that you could do it, as you know, is to start with yourself and go back every 10 years through the federal census. The censuses are now digitized up to 1930 - only up to 1930 because of privacy considerations, the censuses...
LINDA: Yes, well, I can't find myself. I was born in '49, so I'm not even on there.
Prof. GATES: No, right. You could go down to the actual, you know, manuscript of the census. But you're right, you can't find it on ancestry.com. But you can - you have to just go back every 10 years and then - county by county, census by census - and then look for tax records. Let's say you found - how far can you trace them back to - where, 1880?
LINDA: I have traced my grandmother's family - you know, I've gone back to the 1930 census. I've been able to go that far back, as far as the census go.
NEARY: Is there anyone location she can go to in particular? I mean, it's going to be hard to work her through this whole thing, but if you can just summarize quickly...
Prof. GATES: You can do it right - I'm sorry.
LINDA: There's been a recent bank of information that's been opened up in Independence Missouri. They say it's like state of the art.
Prof. GATES: Mm hmm. The...
LINDA: I haven't been there yet but...
Prof. GATES: The censuses are all online. So, you could it right from your living room, from 1930, 1920. You just have to find them in each of those censuses. And then you have to get back to 1870. Eighteen seventy is the sound barrier for black people because that's when the slaves who had no legal names, no matter what they called themselves, the slaves which are - who were liberated in 1865 first appear in a federal document in 1870. So, the goal is to get to 1870, and then look in 1860 and 1850 censuses for white people in the same county with the same surname, or last name, of your ancestors. That's the only way that you can do it.
NEARY: All right, thanks for calling in, Linda. We're going to try and take another call here. Just want to remind you that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And we are going to go now to Marla who is calling from Denver. Hi, Marla.
MARLA (Caller): Hi, good afternoon, or good morning, wherever you are.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARLA: I have actually - we have a family Bible that traces our ancestry back to - I'm looking at here - 1856 to an A. Johnson Elliot who was born then. We can actually trace our family back on my grandmother's mother's side back to slavery, to a slave owner by the name of John Hannah.
Prof. GATES: Oh, great.
MARLA: And he had four children with a woman named Melisha(ph), who took his last name as Hannah.
Prof. GATES: Mm hmm.
MARLA: So, our family roots come basically from I guess you'd say an Irish background on that respect.
Prof. GATES: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
MARLA: And then on my grandfather's side, his mother was actually full-blooded Cherokee. And I can trace her back to the Northern Band Cherokee. But I have not been able to find her or the family listed on the Dawes Rolls.
Prof. GATES: Oh really?
MARLA: My grandfather had told my uncle that he believes that she renounced her nationhood in order to come and marry my - to marry into the family that he married into. But I've noticed that there a lot of Elliotts.
NEARY: Hello? Marla?
Prof. GATES: Hello? Oh, sorry.
NEARY: I think we just Marla. I'm sorry.
Prof. GATES: Yeah, that's too bad. What she was referring to - the Dawes, D-A-W-E-S Rolls - that's how we found Don Cheadle's people.
NEARY: Oh, really?
Prof. GATES: It was a census taken in about 1898 of all of the (Laughing) African-Americans, you know, owned by the Native Americans.
Mr. JOYNER: The first caller and she said that she was part Indian.
Prof. GATES: Uh huh.
NEARY: Mm hmm.
Mr. JOYNER: And Don Cheadle, you know, thought - he was amazed that he was - that he was…
NEARY: Right. We were talking about that earlier.
Mr. JOYNER: Right, right, right.
Prof. GATES: He…
NEARY: Would you say - I mean, you said at the very beginning, Tom - and we only have a couple of minutes left - but you said this changed your life. I mean, literally changed your life? Do you really think differently about yourself now?
Mr. JOYNER: Yes. Yes. I've often, you know, stopped and wondered where all this came from. I used to be ashamed to admit it, but I'm very successful.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JOYNER: And not for reasons that most people are successful. And I have found that, through doing my genealogy, where it all comes from, that it's - the DNA is some kind of map, and I happened to fall at this place, at this time on that map. I am truly the right place at the right time. I have been blessed to have been put here through a series of, you know, these ancestors over here and the ancestors over there, and it all came together.
NEARY: All right, Tom Joyner. Thanks so much for joining.
Mr. JOYNER: And I feel I'm living the perfect storm.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Thanks so much for joining us today, Tom.
Mr. JOYNER: Thank you.
Prof. GATES: And - and…
NEARY: Tom Joyner is the host of "The Tom Joyner Morning Show," and he joined us by phone from Dallas, Texas. Did you want to add something?
Prof. GATES: You know, just that it's so satisfying to be able to see such a grave injustice done to someone's ancestors. And, you know, we can't bring them back, but we certainly can change the record. And that's a satisfying thing.
NEARY: All right, we've got about a minute to go. Are you going to continue this kind of work?
Prof. GATES: Oh, absolutely. We just got the funding to do a new series called "Faces of America." Lynn, the response to "African American Lives" has been just phenomenal. And so, we are doing two Asian-Americans, two Latin-Americans…
Prof. GATES: Two Jewish-Americans, two Catholic-Americans, two Arab-Americans and probably two Native Americans.
NEARY: That's great.
Prof. GATES: And it's going to be called "Faces of America." And it's - my partners and I are - we're just starting it. We've picked about half of our guests - and two West Indian-Americans, too.
NEARY: Great and good luck with that.
Prof. GATES: Thank you.
NEARY: Good luck with that.
Prof. GATES: Thank you.
NEARY: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the author of "In Search of our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Redeemed Their Past." Coming up, Obama Chia heads? What kind of products are you seeing cashing in on President Obama? I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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