Last night’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” tied together the family histories of three well-known Americans—author Stephen King and actors Gloria Reuben and Courtney Vance—with the theme of fathers. Missing fathers, to be more specific.
All three lost their fathers before they could learn anything about their history. King was 2 when his father walked out; Reuben’s father died when she was 12; and Vance was 30 when he lost his father to suicide.
The message that hit home for me, which I think is the message that host Henry Louis Gates wanted to get across, is that some empty part of you is filled when you can discover these missing parts of your family’s past. King said you “see that there’s a foundation underneath you.”
Last night’s surprises for the three guests included:
- King’s father, who joined the Navy after abandoning his family, changed his last name at some point from Pollack to King. The show’s researchers could find no legal record of a name change, though—he just started using the new name as a young man.
- King was surprised to learn he had Southern roots; his ancestors moved North and served for the Union during the Civil War.
- Reuben learned her Jamaican ancestors were Jewish, confirming a family rumor. I don’t remember the show using the term, but they were Sephardic Jews, many of whom settled in the Caribbean to escape the Spanish Inquisition. (You can download our Sephardic genealogy research guide in Family Tree Shop, or find it in the May/June 2013 Family Tree Magazine.)
- The show’s researchers also were able to identify her earliest African ancestor in the Western Hemisphere, who was transported as a slave via the Middle Passage. Gates pointed out how hard this is to do, a dream for many African-American genealogists.
- Courtney Vance’s father grew up in foster care. Vance learned the identity of his father’s mother, as well as some painful aspects of her life.
- Through Y-DNA testing of himself and a male-line descendant of the minister his grandmother had named as the father of her child, Vance learned that the minister was not the father. More importantly, the test identified a Y-DNA match—a relative along Vance’s paternal line. With further research in that man’s family tree, Vance could possibly learn who his grandfather was. I wonder if the show’s researchers attempted this and for some reason it didn’t make the show? Talk about loose ends.
If you want to use DNA to solve family mysteries, you can learn how in our Genetic Genealogy 101 Family Tree University online course and our Using DNA to Solve Family Mysteries webinar.
The full “In Search of Our Fathers” episode is available to view on the “Finding Your Roots” website. The show will air on most PBS stations on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern.