Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis explore their family trees on PBS' 'Finding Your Roots'

Publication: Nola.com
Author: Dave Walker
Date: March 25, 2012

The genealogy surprises revealed to Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the latest installment of Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” series for PBS are so much fun they could count as story spoilers. So, if you want those surprises preserved, feel free to now skip ahead a few paragraphs knowing that a couple of New Orleans’ favorite sons meet some great-great-greats they couldn’t have imagined having. Spoilers a-comin’.

The episode airs at 7 p.m. Sunday (March 25), followed by a second hour in which Gates does similar digging for Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

The Marsalis musical dynasty, it turns out, is the product of the mid-1800s union of a German immigrant and a free woman of color.

The couple couldn’t marry, and their relationship – which produced seven children – was a statistical rarity.

“They had a relationship of mutuality and love and that kept them together, and that’s really neat,” Gates said during a recent phone interview. “Here’s something that will never be lost now for the Marsalis family, that they’re descended from this white man who defied all the common prejudices of the time. He gets off the boat and the first thing he sees is this beautiful free Negro woman, and boom they have seven children. Can you imagine writing home? ‘Settled in New Orleans. Found a beautiful woman.’ ‘Great, we’ll come for a visit.’ ‘No, wait. We’re not settled yet. Visit once we get settled.’”

For Connick, it was bad-news, good-news. One of his ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War. Another – a privateer who sailed on a ship named The Rattlesnake, fought for the good guys in the Revolutionary War.

“I have never seen anyone more disappointed that he didn’t have black ancestry than Harry Connick, Jr.,” Gates said. “I thought the boy was going to cry. He goes, ‘Oh, no.’ And I go, ‘That’s the good news. The bad news is that one of your ancestors fought for the Confederacy.’ He says, “Don’t tell me that, please.’”

Connick and Marsalis react to Gates’ sometimes-startling news with such aplomb and charm, they come across as perfect subjects for the show’s lineage-linking. Gates drafted them through a longstanding friendship with Connick’s manager.

“She said, ‘Harry will do it, and he wants to do it with his best friend, Branford,’” Gates said. “And I said, ‘You’ve got a deal.’

“I was fascinated with Harry because of his acting and singing. And, you know, Harry’s about the blackest white boy wandering around the United States. I thought we would get a good opportunity to talk about the racial complexities of life in 19th century New Orleans. I was just guessing. I never know. We never do any research into these people. These are people I like, people I want to meet. What we found was astonishing.”

Finding it partly involved the work of New Orleans Public Library archivist and researcher Greg Osborn.

“It’s all sifting through the dusty documents,” Gates said, of his program’s research process. “We sift in two ways. We have a kind of captain genealogist, Johni Cerny (co-author of “The Source: Guidebook for American Genealogy”). She’s out in Provo, Utah. She’s got a killer computer and she knows all the databases.

“A lot of the documents — I mean billions of the documents — that you need to do family trees are online through Ancestry.com or Archives.com or other databases. She’s a wizard at doing this. She’s been doing this for 30 or 40 years.

“So she’ll exhaust what’s there on the Internet, but then we always hire researchers, genealogists, librarians to go into the local archives, because there are all of these things that haven’t been digitized yet. One day, everything will be digitized, but that’s not where we are now. So we always have a team of inside-outside, local and global, as it were. That librarian was an example of that.”

A secondary thread in the Connick-Marsalis hour is also of interest to viewers in a place where African Americans parade as Indians.

Elsewhere in the episode, Gates visits a Boston area barbershop to investigate the widely held belief among some African Americans that they’ve got substantial Native American lineage.

DNA gathered via cheek-swabs reveals to the black men in the barbershop that they’ve been inflating the Native American slice of their genetic pie chart. Marsalis’ true total, detailed in his segment, is comparatively high at 7 percent.

“It’s very rare,” Gates said. “It’s just part of the mythology of the African-American experience. And by the way, as genealogists will tell you, it’s not only black Americans. The most common myth among white Americans is that they’re descended from the Cherokee. I don’t know why they seize on the Cherokee, but boy, if everybody who claimed it really had Cherokee ancestry, all the Cherokees did was sleep with people. The Cherokee were most active at night. But it’s a myth.

“I’ve been to Mardi Gras. I know the symbolism of the Indians and the krewes, but it is more likely symbolic than it is genetic.

“You can quote me saying I hate to disappoint the brothers, but the chance that they have any significant Native American ancestry is very, very small. The average slave and the average Native American didn’t see each other.”

Given that many of the best findings of the Connick-Marsalis investigation were made in paper archives in New Orleans, Gates made an appeal for the accelerated digitization of the genealogical documentation still stored that way all over the city.

“It is very important that the archives in New Orleans be protected,” he said. “We couldn’t have done these stories without the local archives.

“Unless those very rare archives are protected, things like these discoveries, and many more discoveries, will be impossible.”

For further discussion of the archives issue, Gates referred me to Rebecca J. Scott, a University of Michigan historian and co-author of “Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation,” which was largely researched in New Orleans.

She cited holdings of the Historic New Orleans Collection, Notarial Archives, the University of New Orleans and the City Archive of the New Orleans Public Library as “documents that make it possible to write the history of the 19th century.”

“In all of the many challenges faced by New Orleans, keeping old papers dry may not seem like the most urgent,” Scott said. “But for those who protect the documents, the knowledge that many of the manuscripts in the City Archive are still stored in the basement of the public library, for lack of an above-ground alternative, is a recurring source of anxiety.”

Watch this episode, enjoy as its subjects do the results of the amazing sleuthing done by Gates, Osborn and the rest of the “Finding Your Roots” team, and you’ll worry, too.