Friday, May 18, 2012

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Talks About Finale of “Finding Your Roots”

This week I previewed the last episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which will air Sunday evening, May 20. The common thread that ties the stories of the three featured celebrities—actors Adrian Grenier, Michelle Rodriquez, and political commentator Linda Chavez—is Spanish ancestry.

In my recent interview with Dr. Gates, we talked about the impact of genetic testing in genealogical research and what it means for his series. “One of the things that we’re most proud about is that the DNA aspect of our series is cutting edge,” he said. When I first interviewed him in 2006, testing was restricted to either the direct paternal line or the direct maternal line. “We are now doing tests that did not exist when you and I first talked!” Gates said.

Linda Chavez has an impressive pedigree in the early history of the American Southwest, including an ancestor who served as the governor of New Mexico. Gates reveals that the families of the three celebrities attempted to keep their European bloodlines pure. This was especially the case for Michelle Rodriquez’s ancestors who were a heavily-intermarried family. “Everybody was trying to stay ‘pure,’ but none of these people ended up being pure,” says Gates. Linda Chavez learns she is of Jewish ancestry, while Michelle Rodriquez is revealed to be 21 percent African. Adrian Grenier confesses that he “never really embraced” his Latino heritage, but instead feels a stronger identity to the Apache descent he's heard about since childhood. Using DNA as a research tool, the host points out that Grenier, in fact, has only 8.44 percent Native American ancestry. The actor learns that his family tree is far more complex than he imagined.

“I want this to be a lesson in American history,” Gates says. “We all know about the Mayflower. But very few of us know that the people who are founding fathers and mothers came to the Southwest, to New Mexico, and came here before the 1600s. Most of us don’t know anything about that. We do not realize that a class of people came to America long before the Pilgrims came. Linda Chavez’s family has been here longer than anyone who came on the Mayflower.

Will Finding Your Roots return to PBS? “We’re planning season two right now, but we won’t air it until 2014,” Gates tells me. His next project, African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, will air in 2013.

“Millions and millions of people watch this series,” Gates says of Finding Your Roots. “We’re averaging 2.5 million people an episode. The first four episodes -- ten million people watched. That’s incredibly successful. It's very gratifying to me, and I’m deeply honored to be a part of it.”

Friday, April 20, 2012

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr. on "Finding Your Roots"

The April 22, 2012, episode of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s PBS series, Finding Your Roots, features actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr., who discover surprising diversity in their backgrounds, including Swedish royalty, Revolutionary War soldiers and Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic Passenger and His Mysterious Wife

One hundred years ago today my great-granduncle, James Bracken, was among more than 1,514 people remaining aboard the Titanic when the ship sank into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. recently added images from a ledger entitled The Register of Deceased Passengers, which includes an entry for Titanic passenger James H. Bracken, age 27, a stockman, with the cause of death: “Supposed Drowned.” James, according to family tradition, had gone to Europe on a buying expedition, and booked passage on the ill-fated ship for his return to the U.S.

Since his body was never recovered, his widow, Addie Greathouse Bracken, refused to believe her husband had perished in the disaster. According to niece Jo Faye Phelps, Addie held “a considerable amount of money in the bank in El Paso (which the Red Cross deposited to her account when her husband died on the Titanic) and I’ve heard that she refused the money.” James and Addie Bracken’s brief marriage was childless, and the widow never remarried. In the 1930s Addie, after a visit with relatives, boarded a train with a vow to her family that they would never see her again. “For many years the Red Cross tried to find her,” wrote Jo Faye Phelps in 1967. “I remember their making inquiries of my mother several times.” Unbeknownst to Jo Faye and other family members, the elusive Addie was then living in a convalescent home in Fort Worth. She died there on May 31, 1969. Interestingly, the informant for her death certificate was named as the American Red Cross.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New PBS Series: Finding Your Roots

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is back.

In his newest project for PBS Television, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard professor and his research team, led by Utah-based genealogist Johni Cerny, uncovers the roots of 25 celebrity guests. “We have such a great team,” he told me in a recent interview. “We found fantastic records!” Gates’s new series, not unlike previous programs African American Lives and Faces of America, involve both in-depth genealogical research and genetic testing.

I first interviewed Dr. Gates in 2006 when he launched African American Lives. The success of that show led to a second series in 2008 and Faces of America in 2010. “The response has been enormous,” says Gates who is back as host of the 10-part Finding Your Roots. In previewing the first two episodes, I found both just as captivating as his earlier shows. The series premiere traces the ancestry of New Orleans musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. Politicians Cory Booker and John Lewis are featured in the second episode. The segment about Booker’s roots is especially interesting because the results of DNA testing give a definitive answer to a long-held mystery about the identity of a great-grandfather. It was an emotional experience for both guest and host. “I got tears in my eyes for Cory Booker,” Gates said.

Dr. Gates stresses how the use of DNA as a research tool often deconstructs ideas of ethnicity. “There is no racial purity; things are more complex,” he explains.

Other celebrity guests appearing in the new series include Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Margaret Cho, Barbara Walters, Samuel L. Jackson, Martha Stewart, John Legend, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Wanda Sykes, Condoleeza Rice, Michelle Rodriquez, and Robert Downey, Jr.

When I asked lead genealogist Johni Cerny which of the celebrity research stories in the series stands out, she said, “Wanda Sykes is one of the best. It’s really great.”

Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. premieres Sunday, March 25 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Family Tree of Katherine Helmond

Texas-born actress Katherine Helmond, best-known for her television roles in Soap and Who's the Boss, was a fourth generation Galvestonian before leaving the Lone Star State to pursue a career on the stage and screen. Her immigrant ancestor, James Helmond, settled in Galveston a few years before enlisting in the Confederate Army. Yet, another great-grandfather was born to parents who supported the leader of the Union Army; for he was named Ulysses Simpson Grant Walker. Other surnames in the actress's bloodline include Ormes, Lennox, Brewer, Boyd, and Snyder. See "The Family Tree of Katherine Helmond."