“Finding Your Roots” Season Premiere Focuses on Enslaved Ancestors

By Allison Dolan

Did you see the season premiere of “Finding Your Roots” last night on PBS? What did you think?

The episode focused on the role of slavery in the family trees of Donna Brazile, a Democratic political strategist (above, left); Kara Walker, an artist whose sometimes-provocative work centers on slavery and African-American identity (right); and Ty Burrell, an actor best known as Phil Dunphy on the show “Modern Family” (center).

Burrell recalls a family story about having black roots, and the show’s researchers did find out that his enslaved fourth-great-grandmother was raped at age 13 by her 33-year-old slaveowner, Dudley Mask. Her child Nellie, Burrell’s third-great grandmother, carried the surname of her father. The story was in a family history written by Mask descendants, and DNA testing proved Burrell’s relationship to the family.

Brazile learned the origin of her surname: Researchers linked her ancestor Della Braswell, born in 1843, to a slaveowning family of the same name. That family descended from Robert Bracewell, who was born in England in 1611 and immigrated to the American Colonies.

Kara Walker had family rumors of white ancestry. The average African-American is nearly a quarter European, Gates said on the show. Walker’s great-grandfather James Thorpe, born in 1881 in Aiken, SC, had a black mother and a white father—who in 1900 resided with his white family a few blocks from James and his mother. Records suggested that the father helped his son financially.

In each family tree, researchers identified slaveowners by locating the former slave’s place of residence, then searching the census for white families with the same surname in the same county. This strategy is based on the fact that many (but not all) slaves took the surname of the most recent slaveowner, and after slavery, often (but not always) settled near their former homes.

Researching the white families’ probate records (which document the transfer of property when a slaveowner has died) or 1860 slave schedule can provide confirmation it’s the right owner. You can read more about how to follow this method of researching enslave ancestors in our Slave Ancestors Research Guide.

I also find it fascinating how families ended up where they did. Burrell grew up in a small town in Oregon, where Nellie Mask’s daughter Susannah Weeks applied for land under the Homestead Act of 1862. Brazile’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery in Louisiana and died there at age 92, alone and impoverished, in the 1930s. Brazile was raised in Jefferson Parish, La.

You can watch the full “Finding Your Roots” episode on the show’s website. It airs Tuesdays at 8 pm Eastern on PBS.