This week’s episode of “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” showed the power of genetic genealogy in revealing answers about family history.
Gates revealed the family histories of two African-American hip-hop artists, LL Cool J (whose real name is James Todd Smith) and Sean John “P. Diddy” Combs. The genetic genealogy surprises came in LL Cool J’s family tree.
(Spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched yet!)
LL Cool J’s Family Tree Surprise
LL Cool J’s mother, Ondrea, ended up genetically matching a woman whose last name didn’t show up in the family tree. The amount of shared DNA indicated a first cousin relationship. Researchers tested Ondrea’s cousins on both sides of her family and found no first cousin relationship.
Ondrea’s parents Ellen Hightower and Eugene Smith—the loving grandparents who helped raise LL Cool J—weren’t her biological parents. Gates delivered this news in a private phone call that wasn’t part of the show.
The match’s nieces also took DNA tests, and one shared enough DNA with Ondrea to be half-sibling. So researchers knew the name of her biological father: Nathaniel Christie Lewis, a professional boxer in the 1930s. But there was no Ondrea Lewis in New York City birth records.
Ondrea’s birth certificate, issued a year after her birth, didn’t name any parents. But it did contain the number of her original birth record. In New York City’s birth register, that certificate number belonged to an Ondra Jolly, born to a woman named Ethel Mae Jolly.
The show’s genetic genealogy consultant CeCe Moore said on Facebook that her part alone took hundreds of hours of work to sort out the DNA evidence. Moore also shared an interview Gates gave about LL Cool J’s family tree.
Sean Combs Family Tree
In Combs’ family tree, the show’s research team discovered a long line of free black ancestors in Maryland. Gates said this is extremely unusual for an African-American. One relative, who was captured and accused of being a runaway slave, later volunteered for the US Colored Troops in the Civil War. (See our tips on researching US Colored Troops soldiers here).