Monday, March 19, 2012

New PBS Series: Finding Your Roots



Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is back.

In his newest project for PBS Television, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard professor and his research team, led by Utah-based genealogist Johni Cerny, uncovers the roots of 25 celebrity guests. “We have such a great team,” he told me in a recent interview. “We found fantastic records!” Gates’s new series, not unlike previous programs African American Lives and Faces of America, involve both in-depth genealogical research and genetic testing.

I first interviewed Dr. Gates in 2006 when he launched African American Lives. The success of that show led to a second series in 2008 and Faces of America in 2010. “The response has been enormous,” says Gates who is back as host of the 10-part Finding Your Roots. In previewing the first two episodes, I found both just as captivating as his earlier shows. The series premiere traces the ancestry of New Orleans musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. Politicians Cory Booker and John Lewis are featured in the second episode. The segment about Booker’s roots is especially interesting because the results of DNA testing give a definitive answer to a long-held mystery about the identity of a great-grandfather. It was an emotional experience for both guest and host. “I got tears in my eyes for Cory Booker,” Gates said.

Dr. Gates stresses how the use of DNA as a research tool often deconstructs ideas of ethnicity. “There is no racial purity; things are more complex,” he explains.

Other celebrity guests appearing in the new series include Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Margaret Cho, Barbara Walters, Samuel L. Jackson, Martha Stewart, John Legend, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Wanda Sykes, Condoleeza Rice, Michelle Rodriquez, and Robert Downey, Jr.

When I asked lead genealogist Johni Cerny which of the celebrity research stories in the series stands out, she said, “Wanda Sykes is one of the best. It’s really great.”

Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. premieres Sunday, March 25 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Family Tree of Katherine Helmond

Texas-born actress Katherine Helmond, best-known for her television roles in Soap and Who's the Boss, was a fourth generation Galvestonian before leaving the Lone Star State to pursue a career on the stage and screen. Her immigrant ancestor, James Helmond, settled in Galveston a few years before enlisting in the Confederate Army. Yet, another great-grandfather was born to parents who supported the leader of the Union Army; for he was named Ulysses Simpson Grant Walker. Other surnames in the actress's bloodline include Ormes, Lennox, Brewer, Boyd, and Snyder. See "The Family Tree of Katherine Helmond."