Genealogy: Digging Into Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Chris Rock has done it, Tina Turner too. Even Oprah Winfrey shed a tear when she uncovered her family roots. Genealogy is a passageway for many blacks to search their heritage and ancestry.

While many blacks reflect on the Civil War and slavery, questions often linger about lost family members who might have been displaced during that time period.

Family history is at the heart of a community where reunions are celebrated and heritage extends beyond the Americas.

For the last three years, PBS has addressed the importance of genealogy in the series, "African American Lives."

The program features segments with notable black celebrities, authors and newsmakers discovering their past ancestors. Producers and researchers assist historian and host Henry Louis Gates Jr. in revealing the interviewee's genealogical search and the contributions of family members.

"People want to ground themselves. That's the importance of genealogy," said Gates, who also traced his roots on the series from his fourth generation to his Irish ancestors.

Using census and other public records along with historical data — some with just name references — the show also dispels a common myth that black genealogical research is impossible to do because of the slave trade. Investigating the history of one guest for the series easily took up to three months.

Gates also revealed bittersweet stories on the PBS program, his guests' stories "of triumph and of great pain."

Turner found an inspirational story about her maternal great-grandfather's older brother. Raised in Tennessee, Turner discovered that her relative George Flag had sold a part of his property to house an elementary school that generations later she later attended.

Others had to grapple with heart-wrenching history. For instance, radio personality Tom Joyner learned the truth surrounding the death of his great-uncles.

Meek and Tom Griffith were sentenced to death for murdering a Confederate soldier. Sworn testimony from black prisoners opposing state evidence was uncovered in the program's investigation.

As director of W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies and co-editor of the "African American National Biography," Gates has a personal investment to educate viewers and young blacks about their background.

Gates finds that many young Blacks know little to none about prominent blacks and their contributions to society.

"They don't know anything about their origins. I think that's bad for an individual's self-esteem and it's bad for us collectively. I want every African American to do their family tree. I want to restore the important contributions of our ancestors to the history books but also to your living room, parlor and kitchen."

Delving into family history brings a sense of self-awareness and many often find some clarity. Generating more interest about heritage is a key to dispelling negative stereotypes, social problems and prejudice.

"Chris Rock said it best when he had said if he had only known about the existence of Julius Caesar Tingman, his great-great-grandfather. 'It would have taken away the inevitability that I would be nothing.' That's a powerful line. His family should have had a portrait of his great-great-grandfather over their mantelpiece. But you see, this information was lost from one generation to another and it's time now through genealogy to put it back," said Gates.

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