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

Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts 'African American Lives' on PBS.

ByABC News via logo
February 26, 2008, 3:27 PM

Feb. 27, 2008 — -- 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.