Monday, October 6, 2014

Anderson Cooper, Ken Burns and Anna Deavere Smith on "Finding Your Roots"

Journalist Anderson Cooper, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and actress Anna Deavere Smith are guests on the third episode of the second season of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
    Anderson Cooper, while very much aware that his mother, designer Gloria Vanderbilt, descends from industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt—one of the richest men in American history—the CNN news anchor knew little of the family history of his father, screenwriter Wyatt Cooper. Through Gates, he learns that his paternal ancestors were struggling cotton farmers in Mississippi, though a fourth great-grandfather in Alabama, Burwell Boykin, owned several slaves, including one who killed the slave master.
    Ken Burns, much praised for his documentaries on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, learns of his connection to both. His relatives served in the Confederacy, and Lincoln was the filmmaker’s fifth cousin four times removed. Like Cooper, Burns’s ancestors were slave owners. He also discovered that he had relatives who fought on both sides of the American Revolution.
    Anna Deavere Smith can trace her roots from slaves, but she was surprised when Gates revealed that she also descends from a long line of free people as well. One of those ancestors, noted for being “the wealthiest Afro-American in Gettysburg,” amassed 120 acres. He would, however, risk his fortune to help others achieve freedom.
    Both Burns and Smith make other surprising discoveries when Gates presents results of their DNA testing. The episode airs October 7 on PBS at 8-9 p.m. (ET).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Return of "Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr."

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
(Courtesy of Peter Simon)
Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. kicks off its second season on PBS, Tuesday, September 23 (8-9 ET), with stories as compelling as those airing last time. The season premiere, “In Search of Our Fathers,” traces the roots of novelist  Stephen King and actors Gloria Reuben and Courtney Vance. The common thread shared by the three celebrities is that each knew virtually nothing about their paternal ancestry.

King, who was a child when his father abandoned the family, had always been curious but cautious about the past. “My mother had a saying, ‘Peek not at a knothole lest ye be vexed,’ he explains. “If you look too closely you might see something you don’t like.” But what Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. reveals about King’s roots is no horror story. The family name—King—as it turns out, was an alias used by his father.

Canadian Gloria Reuben’s Jamaican father was 73 at her birth. He died when she was a child, leaving few clues about his background. She had questions about their surname, wondering if it was of Jewish origin. Reuben also learns the name of one of her mother’s African-born slave ancestors.

Gloria Reuben
(Courtesy of ABC/Heidi Gutman)
Unlike King and Reuben, Courtney Vance knew his father well. Vance was 30 when his father committed suicide, having said little about his own past as a foster child. This story involved a court case, with Gates turning to DNA testing to find answers. And like Reuben, Vance learns about his enslaved ancestors.

All three stories also touch on slavery. “Taken together,” says Gates, “these stories of Stephen, Gloria, and Courtney show us just how profoundly discovery of long-lost ancestors can reshape our identities today.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Talks About Finale of “Finding Your Roots”


This week I previewed the last episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which will air Sunday evening, May 20. The common thread that ties the stories of the three featured celebrities—actors Adrian Grenier, Michelle Rodriquez, and political commentator Linda Chavez—is Spanish ancestry.

In my recent interview with Dr. Gates, we talked about the impact of genetic testing in genealogical research and what it means for his series. “One of the things that we’re most proud about is that the DNA aspect of our series is cutting edge,” he said. When I first interviewed him in 2006, testing was restricted to either the direct paternal line or the direct maternal line. “We are now doing tests that did not exist when you and I first talked!” Gates said.

Linda Chavez has an impressive pedigree in the early history of the American Southwest, including an ancestor who served as the governor of New Mexico. Gates reveals that the families of the three celebrities attempted to keep their European bloodlines pure. This was especially the case for Michelle Rodriquez’s ancestors who were a heavily-intermarried family. “Everybody was trying to stay ‘pure,’ but none of these people ended up being pure,” says Gates. Linda Chavez learns she is of Jewish ancestry, while Michelle Rodriquez is revealed to be 21 percent African. Adrian Grenier confesses that he “never really embraced” his Latino heritage, but instead feels a stronger identity to the Apache descent he's heard about since childhood. Using DNA as a research tool, the host points out that Grenier, in fact, has only 8.44 percent Native American ancestry. The actor learns that his family tree is far more complex than he imagined.

“I want this to be a lesson in American history,” Gates says. “We all know about the Mayflower. But very few of us know that the people who are founding fathers and mothers came to the Southwest, to New Mexico, and came here before the 1600s. Most of us don’t know anything about that. We do not realize that a class of people came to America long before the Pilgrims came. Linda Chavez’s family has been here longer than anyone who came on the Mayflower.

Will Finding Your Roots return to PBS? “We’re planning season two right now, but we won’t air it until 2014,” Gates tells me. His next project, African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, will air in 2013.

“Millions and millions of people watch this series,” Gates says of Finding Your Roots. “We’re averaging 2.5 million people an episode. The first four episodes -- ten million people watched. That’s incredibly successful. It's very gratifying to me, and I’m deeply honored to be a part of it.”

Friday, April 20, 2012

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr. on "Finding Your Roots"

The April 22, 2012, episode of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s PBS series, Finding Your Roots, features actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr., who discover surprising diversity in their backgrounds, including Swedish royalty, Revolutionary War soldiers and Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic Passenger and His Mysterious Wife


One hundred years ago today my great-granduncle, James Bracken, was among more than 1,514 people remaining aboard the Titanic when the ship sank into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Ancestry.com recently added images from a ledger entitled The Register of Deceased Passengers, which includes an entry for Titanic passenger James H. Bracken, age 27, a stockman, with the cause of death: “Supposed Drowned.” James, according to family tradition, had gone to Europe on a buying expedition, and booked passage on the ill-fated ship for his return to the U.S.

Since his body was never recovered, his widow, Addie Greathouse Bracken, refused to believe her husband had perished in the disaster. According to niece Jo Faye Phelps, Addie held “a considerable amount of money in the bank in El Paso (which the Red Cross deposited to her account when her husband died on the Titanic) and I’ve heard that she refused the money.” James and Addie Bracken’s brief marriage was childless, and the widow never remarried. In the 1930s Addie, after a visit with relatives, boarded a train with a vow to her family that they would never see her again. “For many years the Red Cross tried to find her,” wrote Jo Faye Phelps in 1967. “I remember their making inquiries of my mother several times.” Unbeknownst to Jo Faye and other family members, the elusive Addie was then living in a convalescent home in Fort Worth. She died there on May 31, 1969. Interestingly, the informant for her death certificate was named as the American Red Cross.