"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.
Searching your family history is not limited to public data and historical research. With state-of-the-art DNA technology, a quick swab of the cheek can trace your country of origin and mixed ancestry.
According to Gates, 25 percent of black males can trace their Y DNA to Europe, descending from a white man.
"We went more deeply into the stories about our guests' slave ancestry and that's always difficult to do. But we talked and delved more deeply into stories about their mixed-race ancestry," said Gates. "From DNA research, we found the same white man Morgan Freeman and Tom Joyner were descended. And the incredible fact that Don Cheadle's family was owned, not by white people, but by Chickasaw Native Americans."
The type of DNA testing is fairly simple and noninvasive and two types can help determine lineage. Y DNA uses the Y chromosome and travels through generations only in men. This test also identifies the haplogroup, tracing ancestors that have migrated out of Africa and where they might have traveled.
Every male and female has the mitochondrial DNA of their mother. The maternal version is not passed on by the sons. This mitochondrial-DNA test offers a finite code, also referred to as the Cambridge reference sequence. From the deviations of this standard, people can match up same DNA types or track descendants.
"DNA took a while to catch on but in the last year, it's been wildly popular for people using DNA tests to find their roots," said Megan Smolenyak, chief family historian for Ancestry.com. Smolenyak was also a genealogical researcher for "African American Lives" on PBS.
According to Smolenyak, tracing origins through science is a fascinating and fast approach.
"We're just enchanted with DNA period and it's a way of playing with it and not be threatened by it. We're living at the first time in the history of mankind to be able to peek into your past by taking a cheek swab."
You don't need to be on the next PBS segment to find your extended family members. Now in the digital age, genealogical resources are easier to find. With sites such as ancestry.com, many Americans can trace their great-greatparents with a click of the mouse. Census reports and public records have been digitized and the National Archives is posting more data onto the Web.
"I've been doing this since the paper-and-pencil days when you got started, you might end up waiting for months. On the Internet, you can find your family tree within a half-hour. Once you get the first taste of genealogy, you want the next clue. In the old days, that would mean you were writing a letter to the vital records office. But now you can find your grandfather on the World War draft card or 1930 Census database and it starts to unfold," said Smolenyak.