Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Tracking the Family History of Slaves

Filed under: Relatives, Family Time

family history

By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

One of the transformative moments of my life occurred when my grandfather, Edward Gates, died in 1960. I was 10 years old, and, following his burial, my father showed me my grandfather's scrapbooks.

There, buried in those yellowing pages of newsprint, was an obituary -- the obituary, to my astonishment, of our family matriarch, an ex-slave named Jane Gates.

"An estimable colored woman," the obituary read, also mentioning that she had been a mid-wife.

"That woman was Pop's grandmother," my father said, quietly. "She is your great-great-grandmother. And she is the oldest Gates."

I was fascinated. I wanted to know how I got here from there: from the mysterious and shadowy preserve of slavery in the depths of the black past. I became obsessed with my family tree, and peppered my father with questions about the names and dates of my ancestors, which, ever so dutifully, I wrote down in a notebook.

I knew I had white ancestors. My father, his six brothers, and their sister, were clearly part white. I wanted to learn the names of both my black and white ancestors. I remember poring over ads in the backs of magazines that encouraged readers to send in their names and $20 or so, in exchange for one of those colorful European coats of arms, the sort one would see hanging on the wall of a castle in England.

I thought about ordering one for the Gates family. I knew it wouldn't have anything to do with me, necessarily, but who could be sure? As I got older, I even allowed myself to dream about learning the name of the very tribe we had come from in Africa.

I became an historian, in part, I think, out of this desire to know myself more fully, which, of course, over time became a desire to understand others, as well -- to learn about the past of my people, the African-American people, and, ultimately, the past of my nation.

Finding my own roots has been my lifelong quest ever since my grandfather's funeral. But there was always a problem in this search. And, if you're black, and have tried to trace your roots, you know it well: slavery. Slavery was, among many other evil things, a systemic effort to rob blacks of all family ties and the most basic sense of self-knowledge.

With very few exceptions, each slave had one name only, a first name. Good luck building a family tree for somebody who only has one name.

After decades of being frustrated by this experience, I decided to do something about it. Over the past four years, I have been producing a documentary series for PBS called "African-American Lives," which traces the family histories of prominent African-Americans back to slavery and beyond.

We track down every little scrap of paper we can find about our subjects, and when the paper trail ends, inevitably, in the abyss of slavery, we look at something that our ancestors from Africa brought with them that not even the slave trade could take away: our distinctive strands of DNA.

With cells collected from the insides of our mouths, geneticists can compare our genetic material to DNA samples taken from people on the African continent. The process is a bit like matching finger prints on "CSI."

The series was a risky experiment at first -- no one had tried this before -- but it has turned out to be a remarkably rewarding experience. I have learned more about myself and my people than I ever imagined possible. And I am very curious to see what you all think about this work.

As a parent, as well as an historian, I also encourage you to introduce your children to their family history. A great way to start is by showing them photo albums and scrapbooks from the past. That's how my father got my attention. Look for family documents such as obituaries, birth certificates, diplomas - - anything that might show your ancestors' names and details of their lives. Talk to older family members. Track down distant relatives. And write everything down. You also might want to check out "A Beginner's Guide to Tracing Your Roots" for more ideas.

If you've already introduced your children to their ancestry, how did you go about it?

This article was originally on PBSParents and was written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. He is also editor-in-chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American and Africana Studies.

More From PBSParents.org:

African American Lives 2

PBS Parents - Black History Month Page

PBS Parents - Books that Bring the Black Experience to Life

PBS KIDS--Grow a Tree!

The Root

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.