The experience of a Black American is often a very complex one. While Black Americans have contributed vastly to the framework of American culture and beyond, there is the fact that our history—collectively and individually—is still being uncovered.
The solution? Genealogy.
According to Ancestry's Genealogist Nicka Sewell Smith, this history can profoundly alter the course of our community's livelihood. "The experiences of our ancestors have a direct influence on the lives we live today. When we find the stories within our family history, we can strengthen family bonds and develop a really special sense of belonging and knowledge of ourselves. It’s a powerful feeling—one that I’ve experienced doing the research myself—and it’s one that everyone deserves." She continues, "Family history research for Black Americans can be challenging due to the long history of slavery in the U.S. The lack of documentation about those who were enslaved means that the paper trail often goes cold before 1870, although access to collections like the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records allows descendants to reach even further back into their family trees."
This sentiment has been the primary driving source behind the life's work of Dr. Henry Louis Gates. The illustrious scholar, filmmaker, professor, author and host of PBS's Finding Your Roots has been a remarkable thought leader in the quest for a holistic understanding of Black history and culture. One of Dr. Gates' primary undertakings has been connecting people, Black people in particular, with their ancestry. For many, this history is deeply severed after the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and has imparted a great desire to be reunited with the roots of our family tree.
EBONY spoke with Dr. Gates about the importance of genealogy within the Black community and how it can impact Black families for the better.
EBONY: As a renowned scholar and genealogist, you have been able to provide the missing pieces to the familial stories of many. What personally led you to want to help people with their own genealogy journeys?
Dr. Henry Louis Gates: I actually know the day that I fell in love with genealogy—July 3 1960. Why do I remember that? Because on July 2, 1960, we buried my father's father, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, who looked like a white man. After the funeral, I couldn't figure out how somebody with my physical features could be descended from a grandfather who looked just like a white man. The night after we buried my grandfather, my father showed my brother and me a picture of his grandmother, who had been a slave. Her name is Jane Gates. She's the oldest Gates we've ever been able to trace. She was born in 1819 and died on January 6, 1888. So I went to bed, at nine years old, with this swirling in my head. The day after that, we went to what was called the colored Fourth of July picnic and on the way home, I asked my daddy to buy me a composition book. In front of our 12-inch black and white RCA television, I interviewed my parents about (what years later I would learn) is called your genealogy or your family tree. I wanted to know how I could be descended from that grandfather. I never lost this interest.
What's the most fulfilling part of being able to help people place you know, their family tree in place, their history, their personal histories?
Well, I thought at first that our people were the only people who didn't know anything about their ancestry because of slavery. As Frederick Douglass once famously said, genealogical family trees did not grow in slavery. The whole system was designed to keep us from knowing our real names and know who our grandparents were, et cetera. It was a way of controlling people. But it turns out that everybody knows their grandparents when they sit down with me but nobody knows their great-great grandparents. I think that our ancestors are suspended in a kind of genealogical purgatory waiting for us to find them. When we find them, we open these vaults where they've been suspended. They tell us stories that somehow magically have trickled down through the branches of your family tree and shaped your household. You're just playing out patterns and characteristics set in motion by your ancestors. So there's nothing like it.
In the case of African Americans, we have a double educational purpose: One aspect is to restore the keys and elements of Black history for Black people but to also do so for all people; all Americans. Black history is American history and vice versa. I want every day to be Black History Month. One of the most powerful ways to tell history is through the stories of what your great-grandparents went through. That brings history to life. So that we're restoring, specifically through Finding Your Roots. We're telling Americans about episodes of world history and we're filling in the blank pages in our guests' family trees. That is a double gift.
for people, whether using like ancestry, a platform on ancestry, or if they want to do the journey of by themselves, what would you suggest they do when starting their own ancestry journey and genealogy journey,
I suggest they do two things. The first thing they should take is a DNA test. In genealogical research, we have something called the brick wall. With African Americans, it's slavery. If you've descended from people who weren't free, it's very hard to find them identified in the paper trail. So with DNA, we can often circumvent that brick wall. On Finding Your Roots, we give all of our guests two DNA test to compare the results and they're always the same.
The second thing is to go online. To start, you just type in the name of your grandparents. You'll see how magically, with the internet, you can be connected to records. If you need help and live in a major city, visit your local genealogical society. Major libraries such as the New York Public Library or Boston Public Library often have them. Let them know that you are seeking help with getting started tracing your ancestry and there will be people who will help you. Or if you're more comfortable, you can go online and look for experts in African American genealogy and hire somebody who will do the work for you. I warn people that once you turn on that computer and dive in, man, you're going down the rabbit hole.