Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The roots of his curiosity were planted in West Virginia

September/October 2014


After a busy spring filming episodes of his PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. had time for a quick vacation before he got to back to work, conducting a telephone interview before he flew to Chicago to explore the ancestry of Sting.
Yes, that Sting, the former frontman for the 1980s new wave group the Police, who was appearing in a play in the Windy City.
“There’s only one Sting,” laughed the native of Piedmont, in Mineral County.
Gates, who introduces himself by his family nickname, “Skip,” has long been a mainstay on PBS, which not only serves as the home of “Finding Your Roots,” debuting for a second season on Sept. 23, but also for special documentaries hosted by the Yale- and Cambridge-educated Harvard professor, most recently, the six-part “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” which aired last fall and won a Peabody Award in April. The documentary traced the history of blacks in America from 1500 to the present day and will spawn at least one four-hour special, “From Black Power to the White House.”
But Gates is a man of many titles, including the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University; editor-in-chief of The Root.com, an online magazine published by Slate that covers African-American culture; editor-in-chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center; and co-founder and co-owner of AfricanDNA.com.
As a scholar with a Ph.D. in literature from Cambridge University, Gates has delved into the world of literary theory and criticism but he has spent the last decade also becoming the go-to guy for celebrities who want to learn about their lineage.
First there was “Oprah’s Roots: An African American Lives Special,” in 2007; then, in 2010 on a four-part PBS series, “Faces of America,” cellist Yo-Yo Ma and actress Eva Longoria discovered they have a common ancestor thanks to the DNA work conducted by a team of geneticists hired for the show.
“He and I are friends and he was very pleased to be related to fine old Eva,” Gates laughed.
And now Gates, employing not only geneticists but also genealogists, has been working on a second season of “Finding Your Roots,” which in addition to Sting, will feature a diverse group that includes comedian Tina Fey, actor Ben Affleck, Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, rapper Nas and fellow PBS darling Ken Burns, the Civil War documentarian whose mother was born in Clarksburg.
“That did come up,” Gates said.
And when it comes to Gates’ current pursuits of books and blood work, they can be traced to his childhood, growing up in Piedmont in the 1950s and ’60s, where, as Gates tells it, he led a pretty idyllic life that prepared him to go off to Yale after one year at Potomac State.
“I was raised to be a doctorate,” said Gates, who turns 64 in September. “Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, was decided in 1954, and schools (in Piedmont) were integrated in 1955 without any incident, and I started school in 1956. I always went to integrated schools. My teachers treated me like a little prince.”
Then, during his high school years, he spent six weeks at Phillips Exeter Academy — following an interview with alumnus and new West Virginia resident Jay Rockefeller — where he got both homesick as well as a list of “100 books that every educated person should read.”
So he returned home, joined the Book of the Month Club, ordered the books and read them.
“I was hungry,” he said. “I used to eat books.”
Works he particularly enjoyed included “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles, a Fairmont native and Exeter graduate; “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger; “anything by James Baldwin”; and “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” by Richard Farina, who died in a motorcycle accident two days after the book was published.
“The novel is brilliant,” Gates said.
His interest in ancestry hit him even earlier, when he was 9 years old. Gates remembers the date: July 3, 1960, during the funeral of his grandfather, “Pop” Gates.
“I was holding my father’s hand and my grandfather looked like a ghost, he was so white,” Gates recalled. “I was intrigued. ‘How can I be descended from a man who looks so white?’ The next day, after the Fourth of July picnic, I took a composition book that my parents had given me, sat in front of an RCA black and white TV, and began to delve into what was called genealogy.”
It turned out, Gates had an easier time of it than many of his fellow black Americans, because many of his ancestors had been freed from slavery decades prior to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, making their paper trail much easier to follow. He initially traced his line back to the early 1800s to a woman named Jane Gates.
As Gates and the descendant of a white slaveholder noted in the first episode of “Many Rivers to Cross,” slaves often only were given first names in an effort to dehumanize them and break family bonds, which also ended up making ancestry harder to research for many black Americans.
“It’s very difficult to trace slaves because they didn’t have official names,” Gates said.
One way to approach it is to start with the 1870 U.S. Census, in which all black people were listed for the first time with official names, and work backwards to the 1860, 1850, 1840, etc., censuses and try to match them to those listed in 1870, Gates noted.
Then, as a young man, Gates’ interest in his heritage grew after the airing of the 1977 television miniseries “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s bestseller tracing his family back to Kunta Kinte, who was brought from Gambia in Africa to the United States and sold into slavery.
“I had a serious case of ‘Roots’-envy,” he said. “I wanted to be like Alex Haley and trace my family tree all the way to Africa and not just to Jane Gates.”
Thirty years after the “Roots” phenomenon, Gates was able to have his ancestry researched professionally.
“They found three sets of fourth great-grandparents,” Gates said. “They were all free Negroes and they were all from West Virginia. My family has lived in a 30-mile radius from Piedmont for 250 years.”
Two sets of his fourth great-grandparents were freed during the American Revolution, Gates said, and another set were freed in 1823. Armed with this new information, in July, Gates had planned a trip for August to Piedmont to film another episode of ‘Finding Your Roots,” this time focusing on his family.
“I am a native West Virginian and my family has been there just about as long as anybody’s family,” he said. “I have had many honors bestowed upon me, but one of my proudest honors is that I was made West Virginia of the Year by (former Gov.) Gaston Caperton, who is one of my closest friends. I’m a Mountaineer through and through. I love coming back to West Virginia.”