“Finding Your Roots”: Anderson Cooper, Anna Deavere Smith, Ken Burns

“Finding Your Roots”: Anderson Cooper, Anna Deavere Smith, Ken Burns

Last night's "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr." linked its guests, Anderson Cooper, Ken Burns and Anna Deavere Smith, by the events of the Civil War. CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, who is related to New York's Vanderbilt family through his mother Gloria, has Southern roots on...

Last night’s “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” linked its guests, Anderson Cooper, Ken Burns and Anna Deavere Smith, by the events of the Civil War.

  • CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, who is related to New York’s Vanderbilt family through his mother Gloria, has Southern roots on his father’s side. Several of his relatives who fought in the Confederate Army were small farmers and laborers in Mississippi, and among the majority of Southerners who didn’t own slaves. But Cooper was surprised to learn that a third-great-grandfather who did own a plantation was killed by one of his slaves.

Normally toward the end of each episode, Gates will reveal the results of the guests’ DNA tests.We didn’t hear anything about Cooper’s DNA. Makes me wonder if the results were so anticlimactic, or maybe revealed sensitive information.

You can see an interactive family tree for Anderson Cooper here.

  • Ken Burns has an ancestry worthy of a producer of documentaries about history, with relatives in the Civil War (on the Confederate side, including one held at Camp Chase in Ohio), a slave-owning third-great-grandfather, relatives on both sides of the American Revolution, and a link to his hero, Abraham Lincoln (his 5th cousin four times removed). The show’s researchers’ also found DNA evidence to support Burns’ family legend that he’s related to Scottish poet Robert Burns.
  • Anna Deavere Smith, an actress and playwright, had the best story of the episode, I thought. Her free black great-great-grandfather Basel Biggs moved his family to Pennsylvania before the Civil War—where their farm was right in the path of the Confederate army on its way to Gettysburg. The family fled before the battle; their land was used as a Confederate field hospital. Afterward, Basel was hired to supervise a handful of men disinterring Union soldiers who fell on the battlefield and reburying them in orderly graves—the first burials in what became the Gettysburg National Cemetery. A Cleveland, Ohio, newspaper article celebrated his success as a veterinarian and his “magnificent” home. Last, Gates showed Smith Basel’s obituary, which revealed that Basel Biggs was active on the Underground Railroad.

    Finally, Smith’s DNA results showed she shares maternal ancestry with the Igbo people in what’s now Nigeria.

Gates asked Smith, “How could your family have lost the story of this man?”, a question that could apply to pretty much anyone’s family history, and a situation genealogists work so hard to fix.

You can watch the full “Finding Your Roots” season 2, episode 3 online.

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  1. Hi Diane,

    Thanks for writing about the show. I think the lack of a DNA reveal for Anderson Cooper was simply a matter of time. There were just so many good stories to fit in the episode and we always lose so much great research in editing. (The interviews are usually three hours each!) However, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have some interesting DNA analysis for him. The last episode of the season will focus on DNA and pick up some of the DNA reveals that ended up on the editing room floor. I am hoping that Anderson will be back for a cameo with something very intriguing that we found for him.

    I am writing a weekly column on the show’s PBS site with some additional behind-the-scenes information and explanations for anyone who might be interested in learning more about the DNA research. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots/)

    CeCe Moore

    Genetic Genealogy Researcher for "Finding Your Roots"

  2. Thanks for letting us know about the additional DNA information in the last episode and for the reminder about the show’s Behind the Scenes blog! No doubt each episode easily could be hours long.