“Finding Your Roots”: Maya Rudolph, Shonda Rhimes and Keenan Ivory Wayans

By Allison Dolan

Season 3, episode 3 of Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr. shared the family trees of actor Maya Rudolph, television writer and producer Shonda Rhimes (the force behind “Grey’s Anatomy”) and comedian Keenan Ivory Wayans.

These highlights and takeaways that stood out to me:

  • Maya Rudolph, whose father is Jewish and mother was African-American, described herself as feeling “rootless.” It turns out her family has deep roots in Vilna, then in the Russian Pale of Settlement and now in Lithuania, where vital records document her line back to her fifth-great-grandfather. That search was possible because her great-grandfather Julius Rudolph’s US naturalization records gave his original name, Judal Rudashevsky.

Researchers traced her mother’s family to enslaved third-great-grandparents in the early 1800s (using a strategy described in previous posts: looking for white slaveowning families with the same surname and living near the enslaved person). The owner’s will freed his slaves, but his descendants continued to exploit the freedmen and ignore labor contracts. The slaves sued in court and, surprisingly, won.

Rudolph’s DNA revealed ancient Asian heritage. Rare for African-Americans, it comes from Indonesians who migrated to the island of Madagascar, the origin of a small percentage of slaves. Despite family rumors that her grandfather was part American Indian, her DNA showed no Indian ancestry.

  • Shonda Rhimes’ Chicago family was part of the 20th century African-American Great Migration to northern cities (you’ll find our research guide to this Great Migration in the January/February 2016 Family Tree Magazine). Around 1910, her great-grandparents escaped the impoverished, segregated Mississippi Delta, where white landowners often would use intimidation to keep their sharecroppers from leaving. A deed record in Arkansas showed they had managed to save enough money to purchase their own land there by 1918.
  • Keenan Ivory Wayans’ family in South Carolina could be traced back to his enslaved great-great-grandfather Marion Brock and his mother, Millie Martin. Searching nearby for Brock or Martin slaveowners, researchers found his family listed in a white man’s estate record. Just seven years after Emancipation, Marion Brock was able to buy 105 acres of land.

In another branch, his third-great-grandfather Ben Pleasant was the enslaved personal servant of a man who served as governor of South Carolina from 1852 to 1854. During a trip to Canada, abolitionists kidnapped Ben, who chose to return home to slavery. Wayans pointed out that while many want to think of their slave ancestors as willing to give up anything for freedom, Ben chose to be with his family. I think a lot of us can identify with the desire to see our ancestors as doing what we consider to be the right thing according to today’s values.

Interestingly, Wayans’ DNA test showed he also has Asian genetic heritage, with African ancestors in Madagascar.

Read more about this “Finding Your Roots” episode on The Root and watch the full episode on the “Finding Your Roots” website.