'Finding Your Roots' enlightens, inspires family history work

Publication: Deseret News
Date: March 24, 2012
Author: Tiffany Shill

PBS’s 10-part series “Finding Your Roots” illustrates how researchers never quite know what they’ll find when looking into family history, whether it’s in a public record, through the Internet or a story passed down from generations.

Finding your Roots,” which premieres Sunday, March 25, at 7 p.m. on KUED, Ch. 7, is hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. The series looks into the family history of notable names like Samuel L. Jackson, Barbara Walters and Robert Downey Jr. Gates invites all to look back in their family lines and find what it is that makes them who they are.

“Genealogy is more popular than ever, but it’s far more than a solitary pastime,” says Gates, whose previous projects include “African American Lives” (2006), “African American Lives 2” (2008) and “Faces of America” (2010). “It’s a fascinating endeavor that can drastically alter both history and the way we think of ourselves.”

The premiere episode features guest biographies of musician/actor Harry Connick Jr. and composer/band leader Branford Marsalis. The two are “dear friends” who grew up together in New Orleans with its rich musical heritage.

It’s often been said that people in New Orleans don’t just tell history, they do history,” Gates says.

Gates uses “every tool available” to put together their “book of life.”

Genealogists help stitch together the past, using the paper trail their ancestors left behind,” Gates says.

Their story “illuminates the complicated history of race in New Orleans,” he says.

Connick Jr. looked back into the life of his ancestor James Connick, who left Ireland in 1853 to escape famine and religious oppression in his homeland. Connick Jr. was surprised — and disappointed — to also learn that his ancestor became a private in the Confederate Army, though he never owned any slaves.

Gates helps Connick Jr. talk through the revelation about his ancestor, who worked the “backbreaking” job of loading bales of cotton onto ships before fighting in the Civil War.

I’m just wondering if there was some other motive” than defending slavery, Connick Jr. says.

Marsalis, meanwhile, was pleased to discover that his third-great-grandfather, who was German, married a free African-American woman in the 1850s.

Gates points out that most African-Americans have European ancestry somewhere on their family tree. But unlike most cases, Gates was able to find the actual name of the ancestor by using the 1850 census.

I can go find him now,” Marsalis said.

Gates also goes to a barber shop to talk with his friends about their ancestry, using DNA testing to debunk certain myths.

Finding Your Roots” does justice to those who are faithful searchers of family history and still inspires those who have never even thought about where their great-grandfather came from. Inspiring and enlightening, “Finding Your Roots” is a reminder of how important it is to know where we came from.

“This is what our work is all about, finding the threads that tie us to the people whose ancestry we share, whatever their color, whenever they lived,” Gates says.