finding your roots

John Legend’s Unique Family History

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. May 15, 2012

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.

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Comments

  • Nancy Milburn

    May 24, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    I hope John Legend and the researcher who has worked for years gathering information on the Polly case will partner on both a book project as well as a movie project about the case and the family history. John’s notoriety will help garner the interest of both publishers and producers. His connection will enable this story to be heard and seen by millions of people who would not have otherwise been exposed to it. It would be an important homage to his ancestors and a service to the collective knowledge of Americans.

  • jerry washington

    May 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Times are hard. I can only imagine how life was my ancestors. They told their stories in hushed tones..as if the walls could hear.

  • Garth Tuttle

    May 24, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    EEEEK ! It is just a slight possiblity, as Bailey is a common name – but – it is alsao amongst the surnmaes I found most recently – of slave holding famiies –
    Before I found those lines, I could use presonal family history, and other sources , to literaly give someone a history lesson – while riding hte bus – when it’s about real peop-le, hte story is much more interesting; when about dates, battles, so forht – would listen wiht such interset ?
    I’m vey gald you’re doing htis, as it helps us all to know we’re connected.

  • Ms Brenda Lynn Rowell

    June 3, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Question
    Do I have to be famous for help with finding my roots?
    Mr Gates

  • June 30, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    thank you so much for this amazing story. I am searching my roots too, to russia and poland on my father’s side, and to very early american colonial days on my mother’s side. my family also migrated to ohio from virginia, the hales, and some were abolitionists and part of the underground railroad, the civil war, the revolutionary war. history is real to me now that I know some of the movers and shakers were my folks. or I am theirs. I am most interested in the possiblilty of being related to james hale of this episode, could it be? anyhow thank you and love from sara and the fur gang

  • June 30, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    oh sorry I meant to say possibility.

  • Rodney

    August 7, 2012 at 10:31 am

    It’s not all that rare to discover documented enslaved ancestors born in the mid to late 18 century who is traceable to living descendants. I have quite a few slave ancestors I can trace from the 18th century and forward. One branch I can trace from an African woman born in 1751 to her great-grandson, who became a teenager at the end of the Civil War.

    There is plenty of documentation of 18th century Africans and their families in courthouses and archives all over the South.
    I have ancestors that were free, enslaved, European, African, and both. I think we need to stop telling people that the Pre-Civil War ancestry of African-Americans is almost impossible to find and not be shocked to discover free ancestors.

    Several well-known people have fpoc ancestors: Jada Pinkett Smith, Michelle Obama and Richard Pryor are among a few of perhaps thousands of Americans.

  • Amy Reid

    December 31, 2012 at 12:32 am

    Loved this one!….and the episode with Mr. Canada ….some of my families surnames are also Stevens,Hale, and Canada,Canady,Kennedy . From Ohio,Virginia,and West Virginia .

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About the Series

The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).


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