John Legend’s Unique Family History

Each family story is unique, and each of these stories contributes to our greater understanding of humanity. Finding these stories and sharing them with my guests is the most rewarding aspect of making these documentary series. This is particularly true when I can share rare stories with my African American guests. Two such stories were buried in the thick branches of John Legend’s family tree.

John was born John Roger Stephens on December 28, 1978, in Springfield, Ohio. Unbeknownst to John, and his family, he is descended from two generations of slaves—a father and a son—who were freed at the same time and by the same person before 1850. What’s more is that these men – John Legend’s 4th and 5th great grandfathers – were born in Kentucky in 1823 and in 1797, respectively. What is so rare about these facts?

I have been fortunate enough to introduce each of our black guests in “African American Lives” and in “Faces of America.” to at least one ancestor who was a slave and born approximately in the first third of the 19th century. The technique for achieving this is to start with the guest, and then to trace their lineage back to the 1870 census. This census was the first in which all black people were recorded as citizens by name. The census then, like the census now, records a person’s birthdate. If a person is listed as age 50, then their birth date was probably 1820. Sometimes we can find two generations of a person’s ancestors living in the same household in 1870. This enables us to trace their oldest ancestor back even earlier in the century.

Three of our guests, and fellow Harvard colleagues, Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, the late Rev. Dr. Peter J. Gomes, and I all descend from long lines of Free Negroes. In each case, our ancestors were actually freed in the 18th century. One of Sarah’s ancestors, a man named Mason Dixon, was born in about 1745! My oldest traceable ancestors were born sometime between 1750 or 1760, and were free by 1776. One of these men, my fourth great grandfather, John Redman, actually served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Peter Gomes’s freed ancestors, Ben and Rose Bailey were manumitted in 1782. In this case, we found the manumission document signed by their master, a Quaker, as well as the Free Papers that their son, Isaac Bailey, had to carry to prove that he was a free man, not a slave.

In John Legend’s case, we found an actual ancestor who was born in the last years of the 18th century as a slave. In other words, we can trace John’s family tree continuously from John’s birth in 1978 all the way back to the year 1797! I cannot stress how astonishingly rare this is. This, in part, is what makes his family’s story so unique within our ever-growing archive of black genealogy. One crucial document allowed us to accomplish this feat; the last will and testament, dated 1839, of a white man living in Kentucky. In this document, the deceased decreed the manumission of two generations of his slaves. This man also deeded John’s ancestors all of his property, leaving nothing to his own children. We invite you to speculate why, and share your theories and suspicions with us. You can then tune in to John’s episode of “Finding Your Roots” to see if you are right.

These male slaves stand at the head of John Legend’s father’s line; they are his fourth and fifth great grandfathers. They were born slaves, and they died as free men, well before the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 freed all of the slaves. When researching your family tree, sometimes finding just one document can prove to be pivotal, unlocking a treasure trove of buried stories. In John Legend’s case, it was this slave owner’s will. In “African American Lives 2,” we also found the 1834 will of the man who intended to free Tom Joyner’s ancestors. That will, however, was contested in court after the man’s death and the death of his widow. The manumission was tragically denied, and Joyner’s ancestors died in slavery. Reflecting on the Joyner family’s tragic story might lead John’s family to embrace the saying “There, but for the grace of God go I.”

The uniqueness of John Legend’s family history only begins with this remarkable tale. I can’t reveal what happened next to John’s freed ancestors, but it was not a smooth ride to freedom. Not even Hollywood could have made up the bizarre twists and turns that we uncovered and shared with John. Truth is stranger than fiction, as Mark Twain once said. I would venture to add that history is stranger than both. Nowhere is this simple observation truer than in those stories buried on the branches of your family trees. Once these stories are told, they will help us all more fully to understand the complex relationship among slaves, freed slaves and the law. Stay tuned.

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: John Legend and Wanda Sykes.