Three iconic American storytellers who have spent their lives chronicling the lives of others all the while knowing almost nothing about their own family history: Ken Burns confronts the reality of his southern ancestors’ role in the Civil War, including Confederate soldiers who were held captive and a slave-owning Virginian; Anderson Cooper, the scion of one of America’s most storied families, the Vanderbilts, longs to know more about his father’s Southern roots, including the story of an ancestor murdered by one his slaves; and Anna Deavere Smith learns the epic story of her great-grandfather, Basil Biggs, a free black man and former conductor on the Underground Railroad. All three guests’ ancestors intersect at the most pivotal moments of American history.
Stream this exciting full episode, premiering October 7th at 8PM EST (check local listings).
Episode Credits Print
A Film by Kunhardt McGee Productions
and Inkwell Films
In Association with Ark Media
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Peter W. Kunhardt
Leslie Asako Gladsjo
Written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Jessica Xanthe Cran
Deborah Clancy Porfido
POST PRODUCTION SUPERVISOR
DIRECTORS OF PHOTOGRAPHY
LIGHTING AND ELECTRIC
Liberty Lighting Ltd.
Red Herring Motion Picture Lighting Inc.
Original Score by Michael Bacon
FIELD PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS
Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Kim Badawi / Getty Images for CNN
Cori Wells Braun
Robert Kyle Burns, Jr.
The Bridgeman Art Library
Radhika Chalasani / Getty Images for CNN
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Courtesy of The State Archives of North Carolina
Deaver Y. Smith, Jr.
Deaver Y. Smith III
The Family of Ken Burns
The Family of Anderson Cooper
The Family of Anna Deavere Smith
Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
The Granger Collection, New York
Tim Hetherington / Reportage by Getty Images for CNN
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Howard County Historical Society
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Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons
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Edward M. Pio Roda / CNN
Jonathan Torgovnik / Reportage by Getty Images for CNN
Twilight Los Angeles by Anna Deavere Smith
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Brandeis House Alumni Club of New York
New England Historic Genealogical Society
CLK Transcription, Inc.
GENETIC TESTING PROVIDED BY
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Professor Lawrence Bobo
Dr. Carlos Bustamante
Dr. Lauren Dickerman
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Steven K. Hamp
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Dr. Doug McDonald
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Rogers T. Smith
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HENRY LOUIS GATES’S WARDROBE
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HENRY LOUIS GATES’S WARDROBE
The Andover Shop
FOR KUNHARDT MCGEE
George T. Kunhardt
DIRECTOR, PROGRAMMING OPERATIONS
EXECUTIVE IN CHARGE
This program is a production of Kunhardt McGee Productions, Inkwell Films and THIRTEEN Productions LLC in association with Ark Media and WNET which are solely responsible for its content.
© 2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC, Kunhardt McGee Productions, Inc. and Inkwell Films, Inc. All rights reserved.
Episode Transcript Print
Finding Your Roots
Ep 203 “Our American Storytellers”
Anderson Cooper/Ken Burns/Anna Deavere Smith
I’M HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. WELCOME TO FINDING YOUR ROOTS. IN THIS EPISODE, WE’RE TRAVELING BACK IN TIME TO MEET THE ANCESTORS OF JOURNALIST ANDERSON COOPER, documentary FILMMAKER KEN BURNS, AND PLAYWRIGHT ANNA DEAVERE-SMITH, THREE gifted STORYTELLERS Who vividly CHRONICLe THE LIVES OF OTHERS, BUT WHO KNOW LITTLE ABOUT THEIR OWN FAMILY history.
GATES VO: TO DISCOVER THEIR ANCESTORS, WE’VE USED EVERY TOOL AVAILABLE. GENEALOGISTS HELPED STITCH TOGETHER THE PAST USING THE PAPER TRAIL THEIR ANCESTORS LEFT BEHIND, WHILE GENETICISTS UTILIZED THE LATEST ADVANCES IN DNA ANALYSIS TO REVEAL SECRETS THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD.
Shots of Skip giving Book of Life to Cooper, Burns, then Smith
GATES: This is your book of life.
GATES VO: AND WE’VE COMPILED EVERYTHING INTO A BOOK OF LIFE.
COOPER: Where’d you find this picture? You’re gonna make me cry.
BURNS: Wow, this is getting better and better and better.
SMITH: This is mind-blowing. I can’t believe you didn’t call me up and tell me this in advance.
Skip on Camera
THE GENEALOGies OF ANDERSON COOPER, KEN BURNS AND ANNA DEAVERE-SMITH ALL INTERSECT AT A CRITICAL TIME IN AMERICAN HISTORY—THE Civil War. TAKEN TOGETHER, THEY SHOW US JUST HOW PROFOUNDLY ONE seminal event CAN connect the LIVES of three TOTAL strangers TODAY.
COOPER: He was the coolest guy I’ve ever met. When we were kids he had use of this…
GATES VO: ANDERSON COOPER IS ONE OF THE MOST INTREPID television journalists OF our GENERATION, fearlessly DELIVERING FIRST HAND ACCOUNTS OF THE DEVASTATION CAUSED BY WAR, FAMINE AND NATURAL DISASTERS ALL AROUND THE WORLD.
COOPER SOT: For many trapped in the rubble of downtown Port-au-Prince the struggle to live continues. People on the streets say there’s a 15 year old who’s buried alive there and they’re talking.
GATES VO: THE FACT THAT ANDERSON CHOSE THE GRUELING LIFE OF A CORRESPONDENT on the frontlines IS EVEN MORE REMARKABLE GIVEN THE RAREFIED WORLD IN WHICH HE was raised.
BORN ON JUNE 3RD 1967, ANDERSON IS THE SON OF WRITER WYATT COOPER AND HIGH SOCIETY HEIRESS and designer GLORIA VANDERBILT. HIS MOTHER’S NAME WAS SYNONYMOUS WITH STYLE AND FASHION—GLORIA VANDERBILT JEANS WERE THE MUST HAVE ITEM FOR ALMOST EVERY YOUNG AMERICAN WOMAN IN THE LATE 1970’s.
AT HIS CHILDHOOD HOME IN NEW YORK CITY, ANDERSON’S PARENTS HOSTED SOME OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL WRITERS, ARTISTS AND ENTERTAINERS.
COOPER: I always assumed that, I don’t know, that everyone had Charlie Chaplin coming to their house and Truman Capote was over for dinner and all these interesting people. To me it just seemed normal. It wasn’t really until I was probably 11 years old, suddenly people started showing up on the street with my mom’s name on their backside. And my brother and I had this game of how many people we could see in a day had my mom’s name on their bottoms. And, I started to realize, wait a minute, this is not so normal.
GATES VO: BUT THEIR BUBBLE OF COMFORT AND GLAMOUR WOULD SOON BE PUNCTURED BY TRAGEDY AND LOSS.
ANDERSON WAS 10 YEARS OLD WHEN HIS FATHER, WYATT COOPER, DIED FROM A HEART ATTACK. TEN YEARS LATER, ANDERSON’S BROTHER CARTER COMMITTED SUICIDE.
COOPER: It drove me to go overseas and become a reporter and to go places where people were suffering, because I wanted to understand loss and understand survival and figure out how I could survive in the world. I think like a lot of people who experience loss, particularly early on in your life, I think it made me much more empathetic.
We’ve lost two of the people in this picture. So you know there’s not much of our family left and that’s a strange thing to realize.
GATES VO: KEN BURNS IS ONE OF THE COUNTRY’S MOST CELEBRATED DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS. HIS FILMS ON THE CIVIL WAR, AND THE HISTORY OF JAZZ AND BASEBALL ARE ETCHED INTO THE NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS—NOT JUST FOR THEIR SCOPE BUT FOR THEIR SIGNATURE STYLE AS WELL.
GATES: Is there anything in particular that you’re hoping to learn today?
BURNS: The biggest thing is that my last name is Burns. My father’s name was Robert. His father’s name was Robert, and throughout my upbringing, we were told by relatives that we were somehow tangentially related to the poet, Robert Burns. In fact, every bookcase in my family has Burns’ volumes. Mine is no exception.
GATES: Well we’ll deal with that last so you don’t get up and walk away…
GATES VO: Ken was BORN in 1953 IN BROOKLYN. HE WAS just a BOY WHEN HIS FATHER Robert, A CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST AND FILM FANATIC, took HIM TO THE MOVIES –BEFORE LONG ken WAS HOOKED.
BURNS: I thought that I would be John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. These were the directors of the films my father shared with me. Nobody pressured me to be an anthropologist or a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief. I was allowed to be what I wanted. And I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.
BURNS SOT: This is where episode two of Vietnam is being edited…
GATES VO: LIKE ANDERSON COOPER, KEN BURNS EXPERIENCED LOSS AT AN EARLY AGE. IN HIS CASE, IT WAS HIS MOTHER LYLA TUPPER, WHOSE DEATH, KEN says, HELPED SHAPE THE KIND OF FILMMAKER HE WOULD BECOME.
BURNS: My mother died when I was 11, of a cancer that began when I was 2. There was never a moment in my childhood where she wasn’t dying and there wasn’t the apprehension on the part from a very small boy that something really terrible was going to happen.
GATES: Do you feel, in some way, that she or her death inspired you to be a storyteller?
BURNS: Yes, in a way. I had a really close friend who said, I’ll bet as a kid, you blew out your candles, wishing she’d come back. I said, yeah, how’d you know? And he says look what you do for a living. And I said what do you mean? He said you wake the dead. He said you make Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong come alive. Who do you think you’re really trying to wake? I mean, I have this fierce desire to do well, making films about American history, but I want to do them really, really well and that’s for her, for sure.
SMITH SOT: I remember standing with you getting ready to go in. We were like kids. We were so excited.
GATES VO: actor AND PLAYWRIGHT ANNA DEAVERE-SMITH HAS HAD ROLES ON POPULAR TV SERIES LIKE THE WEST WING AND NURSE JACKIE. BUT SHE IS BEST KNOWN FOR WRITING AND PERFORMING HER GROUNDBREAKING ONE-WOMAN SHOWS ON SUBJECTS RANGING FROM THE L.A. RIOTS TO THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY.
ANNA uncannily TRANSFORMS HERSELF INTO MULTIPLE CHARACTERS—BRINGING TO LIFE A MENAGERIE OF PERSONALITIES by perfectly mimicking their voices and THEIR mannerisms.
STILLS of Anna performing VARIOUS CHARACTERS.
SMITH: I’m basically an Americanist. That’s what I’ve been doing, is thinking that I can find America by listening to how people talk. What I’ve been trying to do is to embody and become America by becoming the voices
CLIP of Anna performing as Elaine Young- Real Estate Agent.
SMITH SOT: Here we are and we’re still alive and we hope that people will be alive when we come out.
GATES VO: BORN IN 1950 TO SCHOOL TEACHER ANNA YOUNG AND COFFEE MERCHANT DEAVER SMITH, ANNA CAME OF AGE IN BALTIMORE JUST AS RACIAL INTEGRATION WAS trying to take HOLD.
Anna shows Gates pictures of her family.
SMITH SOT: So these are, you know, black folks in Baltimore during the depression. This is my grandmother. I don’t know how she did it. She took in laundry.
GATES VO: Early in childhood, ANNA HONED HER KEEN SKILLS OF OBSERVATION, carefully WATCHing AND LISTENing, BOTH AT SCHOOL AND BACK HOME.
SMITH: No matter what was happening, if the family was there, if I was up in my room, I’d be listening, and I loved hearing people talk and loved watching people, loved looking at my aunts and uncles when they came. They were very different. My father side, they were glamorous.
GATES: What do you mean they were glamorous?
SMITH: They were jazzy people. My mother’s side was more humble. So I was very, very interested in who came from outside and looking at them. I’ve spent my career searching for “the other” rather than for myself, and it makes me want to know more as a matter of history about my people and how they lived. I would love to know their stories.
GATES VO: ANDERSON, ANNA, AND KEN ARTFULLY EXAMINE THE LIVES OF A WIDE RANGE OF HISTORICAL AND CONTEMPORARY FIGURES.
TONIGHT I’M GOING TO CONNECT THEM WITH CHARACTERS FROM THEIR ANCESTRAL PAST AND SHARE STORIES THAT HAVE BEEN LONG HIDDEN IN THE BRANCHES OF THEIR FAMILY TREES.
Skip and Anderson walking down street.
COOPER SOT: That’s incredible. I had no idea.
GATES VO: WE STARTED WITH ANDERSON COOPER. BORN AND RAISED IN MANHATTAN, ANDERSON’S VANDERBILT RELATIVES PLAYED A MAJOR ROLE IN NEW YORK CITY’S DEVELOPMENT. IN FACT WE’RE INTERVIEWING HIM TODAY AT ONE OF his family’s FORMER UPPER EAST SIDE MANSIONS.
Skip and Anderson in front of Brandeis House.
GATES: This is your family house, man. Can I have a room when I come down from Boston?
COOPER: I wouldn’t mind living here now. It’s pretty nice.
GATES: You recognize this person?
COOPER: That’s Cornelius Vanderbilt.
GATES: Yeah we think that he looks a bit like you.
GATES: There is a family resemblance.
COOPER: I can sort of see it.
GATES VO: CORNELIUS COMMODORE VANDERBILT, ANDERSON’S 3rd GREAT GRANDFATHER, TRANSFORMED HIS SMALL FERRY BOAT OPERATION INTO ONE OF THE LARGEST SHIPPING AND RAILROAD COMPANIES IN THE WORLD.
WHEN HE DIED in 1877, THE COMMODORE WAS WORTH MORE THAN 100 BILLION DOLLARS IN TODAY’S currency, EASILY MAKING HIM onE of THE RICHEST MeN IN the history of THE UNITED STATES, AND CEMENTING THE VANDERBILT FAMILY LEGACY.
GATES: There’s a huge statue of your third great grandfather Cornelius in front of Grand Central Station.
COOPER: I actually thought as a kid, this is going to sound absurd. I thought that all grandparents turned into statues when they died.
GATES VO: ALONG WITH magnificent MONUMENTS AND grand BUILDINGS, THE VANDERBILTS LEFT BEHIND A MUCH DARKER LEGACY OF FAMILY TURMOIL. AS A YOUNG GIRL, ANDERSON’S MOTHER GLORIA FOUND HERSELF AT THE CENTER OF A HEATED AND PUBLIC CUSTODY BATTLE THAT ANDERSON SAID TORE THEIR FAMILY apart, AND LEFT HIS MOTHER ESTRANGED FROM HER VANDERBILT RELATIVES.
COOPER: My mom was taken away by the courts from her own mother when she was ten years old at the height of the Depression and given to an aunt who she didn’t know. I always knew growing up that it was an extraordinarily painful thing for my mom and something we never really talked about. I grew up very happy that I didn’t have that Vanderbilt name. Cause I think that name comes with a lot of baggage. People always ask me about my Mom’s side of the family. But when I think to myself that I come from people, I think that I come from the Cooper side.
GATES VO: ANDERSON’S FATHER’S LINE connectS him TO deep SOUTHERN roots.
COOPER: My Dad loved Mississippi. He loved being from Mississippi and he loved the stories that he grew up with and all the people he grew up with. And he wanted it very much to be part of my life and my brother’s life.
GATES: You even said it right. Mississippi.
COOPER: Mississippi, exactly, yeah.
TRAVEL UP TREE
GATES VO: unlike his vanderbilt ANCESTORS—WHOSE story is part of AmericAn history books—ANDERSON KNOWS very little about the Cooper familY, so we wanted to tell him more about these Southern roots.
Remarkably, our genealogists traced the Cooper line back 150 years in Mississippi, to Anderson’s great grandfatheR—A man named William Preston Cooper.
On Camera reveal of WILLIAM PRESTON COOPER
GATES: You recognize this man?
COOPER: I’ve never seen this.
GATES: That is your great-grandfather and his name was William Preston Cooper.
COOPER: Wow. God, I’ve never seen this picture.
GATES VO: WE DISCOVERED THAT ANDERSON’S GREAT GRANDFATHER AND MUCH OF THE COOPER FAMILY WERE NOT ORIGINALLY FROM MISSISSIPPI – BUT PART OF A WAVE OF settlers WHO MIGRATED TO THE DEEP SOUTH seeking their fortunes cultivating COTTON. THE INVENTION OF THE COTTON GIN CREATED THE BIGGEST ECONOMIC BOOM IN AMERICAN HISTORY, AND BY THE EARLY 1800’s, planters LIKE ANDERSON’S ANCESTORS WANTED A PIECE OF THE ACTION.
SKIP SIFTS THROUGH RECORDS
GATES VO: I MADE MY WAY TO MISSISSIPPI TO SEE WHAT I COULD LEARN ABOUT HOW THEY FARED.
were ANDERSON’S SOUTHERN RELATIVES AMONG the LUCKY ONES WHO MADE FORTUNES FROM KING COTTON?
Using Census records FROM 1850 AND 1860, we were able to piece together a picture of what life was like for Anderson’s cooper RELATIVES after they arrived in Mississippi.
GATES: You’re looking at excerpts from the census records of some of your paternal ancestors.
COOPER: Wow, this is amazing. ‘William Anderson, farmer, owning a hundred dollars worth of land. Edward Bole, farmer, owning five hundred dollars worth of land. JG Barry, planter, owning two hundred fifty dollars worth of land.’
GATES: Does this exactly look like Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind?
COOPER: No. There were no Cooper plantation houses as far as I know.
GATES: You got that right. Your father’s ancestors were small farmers and laborers and they followed cotton into the deep south but they never got rich. And they hardly owned, as you can see, any property at all.
COOPER: I mean, it shouldn’t surprise me because I’ve seen the picture of the house my dad grew up in and it’s a shack. I mean it’s, you know, it was pretty hard scrabble existence.
GATES VO: CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, MOST WHITE SOUTHERNERS OF THAT PERIOD DIDn’T OWN BIG PLANTATIONS. FOR EVERY Major land owner, THERE WERE THOUSANDS OF SMALL FARMERS, STRUGGLING just TO MAKE A LIVING, MUCH LIKE ANDERSON’S RELATIVES.
BECAuSE THEY FARMED SO LITTLE LAND, WE WONDERED WHAT ROLE Anderson’s Mississippi ancestors PLAYED during THE CIVIL WAR. Were they among the MORE THAN ONE MILLION CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT TO PRESERVE THE SOUTHERN WAY OF LIFE?
SIFTING THROUGH CIVIL WAR SERVICE RECORDS, WE FOUND THE ANSWER.
GATES: This is a service record of your great-great grandfather.
COOPER: That’s incredible. How’d you find this? This is crazy.
GATES: That’s Robert Fletcher Campbell and he was born in 1822 and he volunteered to fight for the confederacy.
COOPER: I didn’t know any of this. It’s funny as a kid I always viewed the Civil War as the war between mommy side and daddy side.
GATES: Mommy side won.
COOPER: Mommy side won on that.
GATES VO: in fact, ROBERT CAMPBELL WAS JUST ONE OF several of Anderson’s southern relatives who fought for the confederacy. his SECOND great-grandfather, Burwell Cooper, served alongside his father in-law in the Alabama Infantry, while his great-great grandmother’s five brothers also served THE SOUTH.
SHOW ALL RELEVANT RECORDS
GATES: In fact your family is like a one family Confederate Army. And what’s fascinating Anderson is that none of these people owned any slaves.
COOPER: Wow. So they didn’t own slaves but they still fought for the Confederacy.
GATES: They volunteered to fight for the Confederacy.
COOPER: That’s really interesting.
GATES VO: ANDERSON’S ANCESTORS are examples of a rather surprising FACT ABOUT the men WHO joined THE CONFEDERACY: ONLY A SMALL PERCENTAGE ACTUALLY OWNED SLAVES.
GATES: So the average southern soldier wasn’t a slave owner. Just a regular guy.
COOPER: I guess when you think about it, it makes sense that, it’s sort of aspirational isn’t it? I mean people sort of fight for what they hope one day to be able to achieve or the opportunity that they think it may bring them. You know what they believe is possible.
BURNS SOT: This is sort of research center looking for still photographs, finding them.
GATES VO: FROM THE TIME HE WAS A BOY, KEN BURNS HAD HAD A KEEN INTEREST IN THE CIVIL WAR AND He’s always known WHICH SIDE OF THE CONFLICT HE’D BE ON.
BURNS: In the anticipation of the centennial of the Civil War my brother and I were given a Civil War set. I as the tyrannical older brother, which he would more than quickly agree, I made him always be the Confederate while I was the Union.
GATES VO: BUT DURING THE MAKING OF HIS magnificent CIVIL WAR series, KEN was shocked to DISCOVER THAT HE HAD ANCESTORS WHO FOUGHT ON THE SIDE OF THE CONFEDERACY.
STILL, THERE WAS MUCH HE DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT HIS FAMILY’S EXPERIENCES DURING THE WAR.
TO give him a fuller picture, WE took a CLOSER LOOK AT A MAN WHO WAS LIVING IN VIRGINIA WHEN THE WAR BROKE OUT.
BORN IN 1833, HE’S KEN’S GREAT, GREAT GRANDFATHER, ABRAHAM BURNS.
TRAVEL UP TREE
GATES VO: ABRAHAM BURNS WAS 29 YEARS OLD WHEN HE ENLISTED IN JOHN MCCLANAHAN’S HORSE ARTILLERY COMPANY, FIGHTING FOR THE South DURING THE LAST YEARS OF THE WAR.
BURIED IN A CIVIL WAR ARCHIVE, WE DISCOVERED A DETAIL ABOUT HIS SERVICE THAT WE DIDN’T EXPECT.
WE FOUND A DOCUMENT WHICH SHOWS KEN’S GREAT-GREAT GRANDFATHER WAS ONE OF MORE THAN 200,000 CONFEDERATE soldiers IMPRISONED DURING THE War. But surprisingly, HE WAS AMONG THOSE GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO WIN BACK HIS FREEDOM.
BUT ONLY if HE SWORE AN OATH OF ALLEGIANCE TO THE UNION.
BURNS: That’s unbelievable…
BURNS READS: OATH OF ALLEGIENCE… Roll of prisoners of war, Camp Chase, Ohio who have applied for the oath of allegiance from December 1st to 15th, 1864, states that he was conscripted and forced to join the rebels.
GATES: Do you really think that was true?
BURNS: Um, no. I think that was a likely story. (laughs) They forced me to do this, man.
GATES: I love Abraham Lincoln.
BURNS: Yeah I love Abraham Lincoln.
GATES: You’ve said that you have “no sentimentality about the cause” that the South was fighting for, but you’ve also defended Confederate soldiers, such as your ancestor.
BURNS: Well, I’m not sure defend is the right word. You just have to accept your family. You know, it’s just…
GATES: You can’t undo it.
BURNS: You can’t undo it. You don’t look at that old photo album of you with that paisley shirt and wide collars from the ‘70s and rip that out. You go, no, that was true. So, I think this is true. I have great-great grandfathers, who fought for the north. I just think that Abraham Burns, because he’s in that direct eyesight of my life…that is to say, he is my grandfather’ grandfather. This is a big deal. And it is something I didn’t expect being someone in support of the Union.
GATES VO: BUT ABRAHAM BURNS IS NOT ken’s ONLY CIVIL WAR ANCESTOR. We FOUND ANOTHER ONE. ALSO NAMED ABRAHAM, HIS STORY HAS BEEN HIDDEN IN KEN’S FAMILY TREE FOR GENERATIONS.
BORN IN VIRGINIA AS WELL, HE’S KEN’S SECOND GREAT GRANDFATHER ABRAHAM SMITH.
GATES: Have you ever heard of Abraham Smith?
BURNS: Well I was assuming that he’s the Smith that gives my grandmother her last name.
GATES: That’s right. Could you please turn the page? Can you read what it says at the top of the page?
BURNS: No. Slave schedule, 1860. Unbelievable.
GATES: You know what that means.
GATES: Your third great-grandfather, Abraham Smith, owned six slaves in 1860, a year before the Civil War broke out, including an 11-year-old girl. Any idea that you had slaves in the family?
BURNS: You know, I sort of assumed that it was impossible not to have been touched by it. But this still hurts, and another Abraham, to boot. I’ve got Confederate privates and Virginia slaveholders.
GATES: That puts the Civil War in another perspective.
BURNS: You know, I don’t feel guilty because I know this is process. This is true, you know, but at the same time, there’s a kind of sadness. I now have personal connection to this thing that I find so repugnant and so un-American, and yet such a peculiarly American institution, which is slavery, and all the things that go with it. And that’s interesting because my mother never mentioned that. My grandmother would not have mentioned that, though I’m sure – I mean, this is the thing, if you don’t talk about it, then the next generation forgets it, and they don’t talk about it.
GATES: That’s true.
SOT SMITH: My mother’s house, six bedroom house, burned down. It was so sad. But this is one of the few remaining photographs.
GATES VO: SILENCEs through the GENERATIONS HAVE LEFT ANNA DEAVERE SMITH WITH LITTLE KNOWLEDGE OF HER OWN FAMILY HISTORY. LIKE MANY AFRICAN AMERICAN FAMILIES, ANNA’S ancestors CHOSE TO LOOK TO THE FUTURE RATHER THAN DWELL ON A PAINFUL, troubled PAST.
SMITH: My grandfather actually didn’t tell me anything much about his family and I spent a lot of time with him, and I was a listener, so it’s odd.
GATES: So many of our stories, particularly with black people, have been lost because people just didn’t want to talk about the past… it was too much—too much to bear.
GATES VO: WE WANTED TO HELP ANNA unearth HER deepest ROOTS TO SEE what stories were buried there.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY, WE UNCOVERED SOMETHING quite REMARKABLE ABOUT Anna’s HERITAGE—NOT ONLY IS she DESCENDED FROM SLAVES, BUT FROM A LONG LINE OF FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR AS WELL.
GATES: You have free Negro lineage going back to 12 years after the end of the American Revolution.
SMITH: Boy. Then there’s no excuse. I should have made something of myself.
GATES: Never ever, ever crossed your mind that you would have free Negro ancestors in your family tree?
SMITH: Oh, I didn’t know. I didn’t know.
GATES VO: JUST THREE GENERATIONS INTO ANNA’S PAST WE DISCOVERED A FREE BLACK ANCESTOR SHE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW EXISTED—HER GREAT-GREAT GRANDFATHER. A MAN NAMED BASIL BIGGS.
…AND WE FOUND THIS LIFE STORY SO EXTRAORDINARY WE WANTED TO SHARE ALL OF IT WITH HER.
GATES: You recognize those people?
SMITH: Whoa. No.
GATES: Anna, meet your great-great-grandparents.
GATES: That’s Basil Biggs.
SMITH: Right. Well, I have an Uncle Basil, yes.
GATES: Well, now you know why.
GATES: And that is your great-great grandmother Mary Jackson. You never heard of these people?
GATES VO: BASIL BIGGS AND MARY JACKSON WERE BOTH BORN IN MARYLAND AROUND 1820. AND BY 1850, MORE THAN A DECADE BEFORE THE START OF CIVIL WAR, THE UNITED STATES CENSUS INDICATED THAT BASIL AND MARY WERE MARRIED AND FREE.
IN 1858, BASIL, A free man of color and A VETERINARIAN, MOVED HIS WIFE AND FOUR CHILDREN FROM the slave state of MARYLAND TO the free state of PENNSYLVANIA.
But he COULDn’t HAVE chosen a more dangerous place to move. IN the summer of 1863—JUST FIVE YEARS AFTER ARRIVING in pennsylvania, BASIL BIGGS WOULD FIND HIMSELF RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF ONE OF THE MOST DEVaSTATING BATTLES IN THE HISTORY OF WAR—
THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG.
GATES: Now this obituary, Anna, is for Celia Biggs Penn, Basil’s daughter, who died in 1936, and it gives us a sense of what your ancestors did in the fateful days right before the battle.
SMITH: Mrs. Penn, last of kin who fled ’63 battle dies. The only colored persons in this section, the Biggs family, was warned to leave this section with the approach of the Confederate troops. Wow.
GATES: Okay, so your ancestors fled…
GATES: …the Confederate invasion. Now remember, it’s three days of combat, right?
GATES: And Basil’s farm was converted into a field hospital.
GATES: By the Confederates.
SMITH: My God. That’s a story right there. That’s an amazing… That’s a play.
GATES VO: BASIL AND HIS FAMILY FLED THE CONFEDERATE INVASION, just IN THE NICK OF TIME. AS THE FIGHTING DRAGGED ON, DESPERATE SOLDIERS RANSACKED THE COUNTRYSIDE FOR FOOD AND SHELTER.
WHEN THE BATTLE WAS OVER, THE BIGGS FAMILY RETURNED TO FIND THEIR FARM IN RUINS. THEY HAD LOST EVERYTHING— THEIR FURNITURE, THEIR LIVESTOCK, AND THEIR CROPS.
NOT ONLY DID THEY FIND THEIR PROPERTY DESTROYED, BUT THE LANDSCAPE AROUND GETTYSBURG WAS LITTERED WITH rotting CORPSES.
GATES: Now I’m sure you’ve seen this famous image of the horrifying aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg and for you, Anna, it illustrates the situation that your great-great-grandfather confronted in 1863. He saw that there was a job to be done. A job that nobody else wanted to do.
SMITH: Uh oh.
GATES: Could you please turn the page?
SMITH: Oh, my God. Oh. (sighs) Basil Biggs, colored of Gettysburg, was given the contract for disinterring the bodies on the field. He had a crew of about eight or ten Negroes in his employ.
GATES VO: THE RAPIDLY DECOMPOSING BODIES OF UNION AND CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS WERE BOTH A MORBID REMINDER OF THE toll taken by the WAR’S BLOODIEST BATTLE, AND AN IMPENDING HEALTH HAZARD.
THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT HAD TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS …and quickly.
SO THey CONTRACTED with A WHITE GETTYSBURG RESIDENt WHO HIRED ANNA’S GREAT-GREAT GRANDFATHER TO DO THE GRISLY, NIGHTMARISH WORK OF EXHUMING UNION SOLDIERS FROM THEIR SHALLOW GRAVES.
IT TOOK NEARLY EIGHT MONTHS, BUT BASIL BIGGS AND HIS CREW buried THOUSANDS OF CORPSES INTO neatly ordered ROWS OF GRAVES IN WHAT WOULD BECOME THE GETTYSBURG NATIONAL CEMETERY.
these FREE black men CLEARed THE WAY FOR THE ADDRESS THAT BEGAN WITH THESE immortal WORDS:
“FOUR SCORE AND SEVEN YEARS AGO, OUR FATHERS BROUGHT FORTH, ON THIS CONTINENT, A NEW NATION…”
GATES: Basil and his team made it possible for Abraham Lincoln to deliver his address that fall. I mean, you have a purchase on American history at one of its foundational moments.
SMITH: I have to tell you that, you know, I had a play that didn’t work very well, about American history called House Arrest, and there are lots of things that people tell you that criticize your work that are upsetting, but the most upsetting thing to me about the way people criticized that work is that they said that I should go back and do what I’ve been doing, the stuff that’s about me, which is about race riots, as if I don’t have any claim on American history.
SMITH: And I would always say, you know, I really don’t appreciate that, not knowing anything about this, but to now know some things about my people, it’s really upsetting to be relegated to this one place. I have to tell you that this is very, very, very, very powerful, and if you hadn’t invited me to do this, I could have lived my life without having ever read this paragraph.
MANY AFRICAN AMERICANS, LIKE ANNA, KNOW VERY LITTLE ABOUT THEIR FAMILIES BEFORE THE END OF SLAVERY.
SKIP ON CAMERA
ONE REASON IS THE NATURAL IMPULSE TO SUPRESS THE DETAILS OF A PAINFUL PAST. BUT NOBLE STORIES LIKE THAT OF BASIL BIGGS HAVE TO BE REMEMBERED AND RETOLD. THEY MUST BECOME PART OF OUR NATIONAL NARRATIVE.
FOR ANDERSON COOPER, WE DISCOVERED a STORY ABOUT ONE OF HIS FOREFATHERS SO DISTURBING THAT HIS FAMILY HAD COMPLETELY ERASED IT.
GATES VO: WE’VE ALREADY INTRODUCED ANDERSON TO ANCESTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR THE CONFEDERACY EVEN THOUGH THEY HAD LITTLE OR NO FINANCIAL STAKE IN THE SOUTHERN WAY OF LIFE.
WHILE RESEARCHING HIS COOPER FAMILY, WE DISCOVERED SOMEONE WHO DID HAVE A REAL STAKE IN THE “ANTE-BELLUM SOUTH.”
BORN IN BURKE COUNTY GEORGIA IN 1787, THIS MAN IS ANDERSON’S 4TH GREAT GRANDFATHER, BURWELL BOYKIN.
GATES: This is part of the 1850 census and it shows that your ancestor Burwell Boykin what he owned at the time.
COOPER: Total acres of land 620. Cash value of farm $6,000.
COOPER: That’s a lot of money back then.
GATES: That’s serious money and it’s a lot of land. Our researchers believe that he was the most successful farmer in your family during the entire 19th century.
GATES: Wow that’s amazing. $6,000, that’s incredible.
GATES VO: BUT AS WE DUG A LITTLE DEEPER, WE FOUND THAT LAND WAS NOT THE ONLY THING THAT BURWELL BOYKIN OWNED.
COOPER: Wow. ‘Slave inhabitants in the County of Choctaw, Alabama, 1850. These are slaves he owned?
GATES: These are the slaves he owned.
GATES: Your fourth great grandfather owned twelve people. Ranging in age from one to sixty.
COOPER: Oh my God. That’s incredible.
GATES: Did you know about that?
COOPER: I never heard anything about it. Having family from the deep south I’m not surprised that there’s at least one slave holder, but I also kind of always thought my relatives were so poor that they wouldn’t have had slaves.
GATES: Well you were almost right.
COOPER: It’s really depressing. Especially when you see the ages. The fact that there are no names I just find so disturbing. I’m sort of curious about the blank spaces on this ledger.
GATES: What kind of master do you think he was?
COOPER: I shudder to think.
GATES VO: WE FOUND THE ANSWER TO THAT QUESTION IN A MOST UNLIKELY PLACE—THE UNITED STATES CENSUS. ONE OF THE MOST COMMONLY USED DOCUMENTS IN OUR RESEARCH, THE FEDERAL CENSUS REVEALED SOMETHING THAT WE’VE NEVER SEEN IN ALL OUR YEARS OF ANCESTRY INVESTIGATION.
AND IT SHOCKED US–
GATES: Now this is 1860 US Census.
COOPER: Wow. Holy crap. ‘Burwell Boykin, cause of death, killed by Negro.’
GATES: Boykin was murdered by a rebellious slave.
GATES: Your ancestor was beaten to death with a farm hoe.
COOPER: Oh my God. That’s amazing. This is incredible. I’m blown away.
GATES: You think he deserved it?
GATES: You do?
COOPER: I have no doubt.
GATES: That’s a horrible way to die Anderson.
COOPER: He had twelve slaves. I don’t feel bad for him.
COOPER: Honestly part of me thinks that’s awesome.
GATES: But it is your blood ancestor.
COOPER: So I don’t want to offend other relatives of mine… I feel bad for the man who killed him and I feel bad for the eleven other unnamed people who, God only knows what happened to them.
GATES VO: THE avenging SLAVE who KILLED ANDERSON’S 4TH GREAT GRANDFATHER WAS HANGED without a TRIAL—RETRIBUTUTION FOR HIS bold ACT OF REBELLION.
GATES: So you can see this slave did rebel but they rebelled in small ways.
COOPER: Small ways
GATES: …with devastating personal consequences.
COOPER: I wish I knew more. I wish I knew the name of the slave. You know when you think about how many peoples names history just never remembers and people who’s stories are never told.
COOPER: It’s shameful and I feel a sense of shame over it, and at the same time it’s the history of this country.
GATES VO: THE CIVIL WAR ANCESTORS OF OUR THREE GUESTS ARE A CROSS SECTION OF THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE DURING THE MOST PIVOTAL TIME IN OUR NATION’S HISTORY.
WITH KEN BURNS, WE SHARED SOME unexpected THINGS ABOUT TWO of his ANCESTORS——ONE HELD AS A PRISONER OF WAR AND THE OTHER WHO HELD SLAVES.
BUT WHEN WE MOVED UP HIS FAMILY TREE, WE FOUND THAT KEN HAS AN ANCESTOR WHO PLAYED A UNIQUE ROLE IN A MUCH EARLIER CONFLICT.
HE’S KEN’S PATERNAL 5TH GREAT GRANDFATHER, GERARDUS CLARKSON.
GATES: Now, this is an excerpt from the minutes of the Council of Safety in New York from September 16, 1776. The Council of Safety was a patriot organization during the Revolutionary War.
BURNS: Resolved, that a house be taken for a hospital. Resolved, that Dr. Gerardus Clarkson be appointed to attend the sick in the said hospital.
GATES: Your fifth great-grandfather, Dr. Girardus Clarkson, was a surgeon for the Board of War in 1776 and 1777. (laughs) I think that’s very cool.
BURNS: That is very, very cool, you know. (laughs)
GATES VO: KEN’S 5TH GREAT GRANDFATHER’S experience WITH THE CRUDE, OFTEN BARBAROUS SURGICAL TECHNIQUES USED DURING THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR MADE HIM A LEADING ADVOCATE FOR MODERNIZING MEDICINE.
IN FACT, we CAME ACROSS A DOCUMENT THAT revealed the role that DR. CLARKSON played in THE FOUNDING OF THE COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS IN PHILADELPHIA—AN INSTITUTION DUBBED “THE BIRTHPLACE OF AMERICAN MEDICINE”.
GATES: Your ancestor helped the medical profession advance beyond the horrendous practices of the War and encouraged the advancement of modern medicine.
BURNS: That is very cool, that is very cool.
GATES VO: KEN’S REVOLUTIONARY WAR ANCESTRY DOES NOT END WITH GIRARDUS CLARKSON. WE ALSO FOUND ANOTHER ANCESTOR ON HIS MOTHER’S FAMILY TREE WHO PLAYED A DIFFERENT ROLE IN THIS COUNTRY’S BATTLE AGAINST COLONIAL RULE.
BORN IN 1754 IN SANDWICH MASSACHUSETTS, HE’S KEN’S MATERNAL 5TH GREAT GRANDFATHER AND BEARS THE UNUSUAL NAME OF ELDAD TUPPER.
BURNS: Wish I’d had that name. Well, I don’t have a boy, but Eldad is great.
GATES: You know, when your kids have kids…
GATES: Eldad, right?
BURNS: Well, I’m going to call up my daughter who is, is pregnant right now with the first son that we’ve seen for years.
GATES: That’s his name.
BURNS: So Eldad, you know?
GATES: Now, Ken, this is a military muster roll from 1778, during the height of the American Revolution.
BURNS: Seconded officers, regiment they belonged to: Lieutenant, Eldad Tupper.
GATES: At this time, Massachusetts, of course, was a patriot stronghold, but do you see the Massachusetts brigade or state infantry number here anywhere?
BURNS: Regiment…I don’t see it. Is it here? Am I missing it?
GATES: No. Ken, there are no state infantry numbers because the Continental Armies were not on this chart. Your ancestor was a Loyalist.
BURNS: Oh, no! A Tory!
BURNS: (laughs) Now, God help me.
GATES: He fought for the Brits.
BURNS: Okay. Let me just take back everything I said about Eldad and the name. This, this, this name, Eldad, is dying a final death back in, uh, 1832 in Brockville, Canada. See? Of course, he’s in Brockville. That should have been the kicker. We know why he’s in Canada.
GATES: You got that right. He was not down with George Washington. He was with King George. Your fifth great-grandfather, was a Loyalist. He served aboard a British ship for more than a year. You go na-na-na-na.
BURNS: Na-na-na-na-na. (laughs)
GATES: (laughs) He was later honorably discharged, to his credit, in Halifax, and he moved to Elizabethtown Township in Upper Canada to live out his days. Now, what do you think of that? You have ancestors who fought on both sides of the American Revolution. They could have been shooting at each other.
BURNS: This is the thing I’m most ashamed of. This…I am humiliated by this part, right? Because I bleed red, white, and blue, and this is not the Union Jack, and this is terrible.
BURNS: I just, this is so cruel. I mean, this is the way this works, right? You just tease with a doctor here and a lawyer there and then, all of a sudden, you’ve got a slave owner. And then, you’ve got a Tory.
GATES: Genealogy giveth, and genealogy taketh away.
BURNS: …taketh away. (laughs)
GATES VO: WHILE WE WERE SURPRISED TO FIND THAT KEN HAD ANCESTORS ON OPPOSITE SIDES OF THE COLONIAL CONFLICT, THAT WASN’T ALL WE DISCOVERED ABOUT HIS RELATIVES FROM THAT ERA.
WE FOUND THAT GIRARDUS CLARKSON, THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR SURGEON, CONNECTS KEN TO ANOTHER ANCESTOR WHO HELPED HEAL THE NATION’S WOUNDS.
GATES: Your ancestor, Girardus Clarkson, connects you to one of America’s greatest heroes. Can you guess who that might be?
BURNS: Well, my greatest hero is Abraham Lincoln, so I’m hoping that this is where the line goes.
BURNS: There it is. (laughs)
GATES: Abraham Lincoln is your fifth cousin, four times removed.
BURNS: Wow! I need a little bit more respect now.
GATES: And you are one of the few Americans who’s related to a Confederate private on one line…
BURNS: …named Abraham. (laughs)
GATES: Yes, and another Abraham who happened to be the President of the Union. What do you think your Confederate ancestor would think if we brought him back?
BURNS: Who the hell cares? It’s Abraham Lincoln. (laughs) I mean, this is the bee’s knees. This is the guy that I have…in my soul. This is just too good to be true.
GATES: It’s amazing.
BURNS: I love it.
GATES VO: Before KEN’S ANCESTOR, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, could DELIVER HIS MOST FAMOUS ADDRESS, ANNA’S ANCESTOR, BASIL BIGGS first HAD TO CLEAR THE MANY DEAD BODIES FROM THE BATTLEFIELD AT GETTYSBURG.
BASIL WAS LEFT WITH THE TASK OF REBUILDING HIS LIFE AND SO WE WERE EAGER TO TELL ANNA HOW HER GREAT-GREAT GRANDFATHER AND HIS FAMILY MADE OUT.
GATES: Now Anna this is Basil and Mary Jane on the farm that he bought after the Civil War.
SMITH: Wow! Boy.
GATES: Your great-great-grandfather used the money he earned digging up all those dead bodies and reburying them to rebuild his life. Purchasing a new farm where the family could live and thrive.
SMITH: Makes me proud.
GATES: Can you please turn the page? Now this article appeared in the Cleveland Gazette…
GATES: …in 1892.
GATES: It tells the story of a Mr. Scotland, who met Basil when he visited Gettysburg.
SMITH: He is a veterinary surgeon and is reputed to be the wealthiest…what? He is a veterinary surgeon and is reputed to be the wealthiest Afro-American in Gettysburg. He has a large practice, and his residence is a magnificent one, surrounded by 120 acres of land.
GATES: It’s incredible.
GATES: How could your family have lost the story of this man? His picture should have been up over everyone’s mantelpiece.
SMITH: Or they just didn’t talk about it. They just didn’t talk about it. Why wouldn’t they talk about it?
Gates vo: OF ALL THE STORIES that we uncovered, WE SAVED THE MOST REMARKABLE one FOR LAST—a story showing that there was EVEN MORE TO THE IMPROBABLE LIFE OF ANNA’S ANCESTOR—THE FREE MAN OF COLOR, BASIL BIGGS.
GATES: This is your great-great-grandfather’s obituary, and it’s a testament to his many achievements, and it tells us about Basil’s most impressive accomplishment of all.
SMITH: (sighs) Leading colored citizen was an active agent in the Underground Railroad.
GATES: He was a conductor.
SMITH: Wow. That’s incredible.
GATES: And there it is, in black and white.
SMITH: While slavery existed, he was an active agent in the Underground Railroad, helping fugitives to freedom. Oh, this is amazing. This man was amazing.
gates vo: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD INVOLVED A VAST NETWORK OF PEOPLE, WHO, LIKE BASIL BIGGS, PROVIDED SAFE HAVEN FOR SLAVES ESCAPING BONDAGE in the SOUTH. RUNAWAY SLAVES who made it across the Ohio River OR THE Mason-Dixon Line, COULD FIND REFUGE IN THE NETWORK’S WEB OF SECRET LOCATIONS.
GATES: You see, Basil was in a unique position to help, precisely because he was a veterinarian, which gave him reason to travel without raising suspicion. And, Anna, the kicker is what he was doing was breaking the law. It was a Federal offense to do what your great-great-grandfather did.
SMITH: But great thinkers…Martin Luther King, among them, in a letter from the Birmingham jail…make a clear line between a just law and an unjust law. He didn’t break a moral law, but he broke a law that was an unjust law, means a lot to me.
GATES: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, a federal offense.
SMITH: Right. His freedom and all those children.
SMITH: And he could have just had a very nice life.
GATES: Yeah. Free black man, making huge sacrifices to raise his family, willing to risk everything to help other African-Americans escape from slavery. Now that is the definition of heroism.
SMITH: Boy, it’s very powerful, I have to say. Wow, amazing.
GATES VO: WE’VE TRACED THE FAMILY HISTORIES OF OUR GUESTS BACK CENTURIES AND LEARNED THAT EACH OF THEM HAS ANCESTORS DEEPLY ROOTED IN THE FOUNDING AND SHAPING OF OUR COUNTRY.
REVEAL FAMILY TREE
GATES: Now this is your family tree on both sides.
GATES VO: WHILE ANDERSON’S COOPER FAMILY ROOTS WENT FAR DEEPER INTO THE AMERICAN SOUTH THAN HE EVER SUSPECTED. HE WAS EVEN MORE SURPRISED TO FIND A RAGS TO RICHES TO STORY ON HIS MOTHER GLORIA’S FAMILY TREE.
WE DISCOVERED THAT HIS FIRST VANDERBILT ANCESTOR ARRIVED HERE FROM THE NETHERLANDS IN THE EARLY 17TH CENTURY WITH LITTLE MORE THAN THE CLOTHES ON HIS BACK.
BUT OF THE ALL THE ANCESTORS TO WHOM WE INTRODUCED HIM ON HIS ON FAMILY TREE, THE ONE HE WANTED TO MEET MOST WAS ONE HE ALREADY KNEW.
GATES: If you could meet through the wizardry of a time machine anyone of your ancestors who would it be?
COOPER: Well, this may sound silly but if I could meet anybody I’d meet my dad.
GATES: Oh yeah. It doesn’t sound silly.
COOPER: If I could go sit down and interview anybody I’d sit down and interview him and just find out what he thinks of me and what he thinks of all that’s gone on.
GATES: I know what he’d think. He’d admire you man. He’d be proud.
BURNS SOT: Wow.
GATES: That is your family tree.
GATES VO: FOR KEN BURNS, WHO ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW IF HE WAS A DESCENDANT OF THE POET ROBERT BURNS, THE PAPER TRAIL RAN COLD AND DIDN’T CONFIRM HIS FAMILY’S LEGEND.
SO WE TURNED TO THE SCIENCE OF DNA.
ALL THREE OF OUR GUESTS TOOK DNA TESTS TO UNLOCK THEIR GENETIC ANCESTRY.
WE COMPARED THE DNA THAT KEN INHERITED FROM ALL OF HIS ANCESTORS TO KNOWN RELATIVES OF THE SCOTISH POET– AND WE GOT LUCKY.
GATES: You know what that means?
BURNS: He’s a cousin.
GATES: You are related to Robert Burns.
BURNS: Yahoo! (laughs)
GATES: This is a slam-dunk. You have it in your genome. You are indeed related to Robert Burns. It’s not a direct line of descent, but you are cousins of some kind.
REVEAL FAMILY TREE
GATES: Now these are all the ancestors that we’ve found.
GATES VO: FOR ANNA DEVEARE SMITH, LIKE SO MANY AFRICAN AMERICANS, MOST OF HER PAPER TRAIL ENDS WHERE FREEDOM BEGINS—AFTER SLAVERY.
SO WE WANTED TO SEE WHAT DNA COULD TELL US ABOUT HER ORIGINS.
SMITH: Well I’d like to know where I come from in Africa if you were able to find that out.
WHILE MOST AFRICAN AMERICANS DESCEND FROM ANCESTORS TAKEN DURING THE TRANS-ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE, FEW ARE ABLE TO IDENTIFY THE ETHNIC GROUP OR THE REGION THEY CAME FROM BACK IN AFRICA.
TO FIND OUT, WE COMPARED ANNA’S DNA RESULTS WITH THOSE OF MODERN DAY AFRICANS, ALLOWING US TO LOOK BACK THOUSANDS OF YEARS– AND PINPOINT HER ETHNIC ROOTS IN AFRICA– LONG BEFORE THE MIDDLE PASSAGE.
GATES: Can you read what it says there?
SMITH: That I’m from the Ebo tribe.
GATES: Right, you share maternal ancestry from the Ebo people…
SMITH: …in Nigeria.
GATES: …in present day Nigeria. Now I know you’ve traveled in Africa. Have you ever spent time in Nigeria?
SMITH: No. But when I was in Uganda, I went to visit a, uh, place where they did traditional healing, and the doctor who was in charge of this, he came to me and said that one of the…I guess…witch doctors wanted to know if I would like to be blessed by my ancestors and so I said, well, of course, I want to be blessed by my ancestors. And you know what the blessing was?
GATES: Hmm umm.
SMITH: I got spat on three times with mouthfuls of banana peel. (laughs)
SMITH: So this acquaintance with my ancestors is a lot more tame than that, and even when you said, you know, you’re on for quite a ride, uh, I’m glad I didn’t get spat on.
GATES: (laughs) Was it a ride?
SMITH: This was a ride. Thank you.
GATES VO: ANDERSON COOPER, KEN BURNS, AND ANNA DEAVERE SMITH ALL Closed their Books of Life WITH A much CLEARER IDEA OF THE COLORFUL PEOPLE FROM WHOM THEY DESCEND. AND A FULLER SENSE OF WHO THEY ARE.
Skip on camera
JOIN ME NEXT TIME WHEN WE REVEAL THE SECRETS OF THE PAST FOR THREE MORE GUESTS ON THE NEXT EPISODE OF FINDING YOUR ROOTS.