I guess you can feel good about plopping down on the couch for another hour of TV-watching if it’s for work. And if it’s history-related.
Last night’s “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” traced several ancestors of Harry Connick, Jr., and Branford Marsalis. (Watch it here if you missed it or look for a rebroadcast this week on PBS.)
The show spent quite a bit of time on the two men’s childhoods and friendship in New Orleans. I was especially excited to see them at the Musician’s Village, a Habitat for Humanity community the two sponsor and where I got to help build houses several years ago. The show also has Connick and Marsalis playing at Preservation Hall, which I visited on the same trip.
Back to the genealogy: Gates presented Harry and Branford each with a “Book of Life,” basically, a scrapbook of the records the show’s researchers found.
Researchers discovered that Marsalis’ surname came from a white Dutch slave owner in Mississippi. A son of that man’s slave married Marsalis’ great-great-grandmother Lizzie—but her son Simion, Marsalis great-grandfather, was three years old when that marriage took place. Simion’s father was likely Lizzie’s previous husband, a man named Isaac Black.
I was glad we saw an archivist looking… and looking … and looking for records of one of Marsalis’ ancestors at the New Orleans Public Library and in cemeteries before he finally found something. That’s reality.
Connick was relieved to learn his Irish ancestor, a famine immigrant named James Connick, didn’t own slaves—but was disappointed that he fought for the Confederacy for three years.
Gates explains that it wasn’t necessarily because James supported slavery. His work would’ve dried up during the war, and there may have been no other way to make a living. The researchers found a military pension record for James, though it doesn’t seem to indicate what kind of injury he might’ve suffered.
Connick’s fifth-great-grandfather, David McCullough from Pennsylvania, was an infamous privateer on the ship Rattlesnake. He captured ships in the West Indies and would send the bounties back to the United States. The British crown had a 5,000-guinea reward on McCullough’s head.
To demonstrate how varied our heritage is, Gates had black friends from his local barbershop guess their percentages of African, White and Indian heritage, then had them take DNA tests (the show didn’t explain margins of error). Most weren’t too far on their white and black percentages, but had overestimated their American Indian blood.
Immediately after the Harry Connick Jr./Branford Marsalis episode was another featuring Newark, NJ, mayor Cory Booker and US Rep. John Lewis. I had to get to bed at that point. You can watch this one online, too.
“Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” is airing Sunday nights at 8 ET on PBS.