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

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

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.

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.

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 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, 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. is the largest online repository of family history records with about 25,000 databases — holding about 5 billion records including the entire U.S. Census indexed since 1790.

Although you may hit a few bumps along the way, Smolenyak offers a quick guide to start your family research that could open doors to your heritage.

Start at home. Gather all the data you can. Look in your closets and drawers for old photos with names, yearbooks, certificates, medals and military discharge papers. Get on the phone and talk to relatives who are only 20 minutes older than you. Your relatives are living libraries that are full of research.

Start a tree. Hop online and start with a tree. has an easy online version where you can enter your data. You can organize your research and the visual chart is easy to share with your family. The interaction can also help you, with relatives sending photos and contributing information that you hadn't had before.

Start the research. The serious part is getting into the research. You might have to write the state for vital records but there are some basic tools online. The census is the real workhorse that everyone starts on and it's easy if your family has been in the United States for quite some time. also includes Social Security death index since 1962 and massive immigration records between 1820 to 1960.

Don't skip generations. You want to be methodical so that you refrain from error. Start with yourself and go back one generation at a time — don't jump generations.

Try a DNA test. The DNA search can provide your country of origin and a look at how your ancestors migrated. You never know whom you might match up with and what connections you might make through a DNA database.

Click here to visit and get started on tracing your own roots.

Smolenyak notes that as we increasingly become mobile and rootless, genealogy is important because it gives a sense of belonging and connects people not only across oceans, but throughout generations.

Who knows? You could find and develop strong bonds with the second cousin you thought you never had.

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