When Alex Haley’s novel Roots was published in 1976, tracing one’s African roots was not commonplace, nor was it necessarily considered desirable. After the publication of the book and release of the miniseries, things changed. In the last 30 to 40 years many Americans of partial African heritage have chosen to follow their family tree and discover where their ancestors came from. For most, tracing back to specific, named individuals is unlikely, as records have not always been faithfully kept. However, through census records, church records and birth and death certificates, some Americans have been able to find specific lineages. For those Black Americans who cannot find specific names, DNA testing which is more accurate than ever can still trace heritages back to Africa, to specific countries and even tribes.
Many believe that discovering one’s roots can only be a positive thing, despite the fact that it might throw up some unpleasant realities. Through remembering one’s lineage, it’s possible to inform oneself of the atrocities of slavery while perhaps allowing for some closure, some forgiveness, and the room to embrace one’s ancestral heritage while appreciating that an undeniably checkered aspect of the past has still contributed to making America such a wonderfully culturally and ethnically diverse nation.
Indeed, some of America’s most significantly influential people can trace their lineage back to slave ancestors. The following are five such Americans. Their stories – not just their pasts but their personal histories – are definitely worth sharing.
5. Condoleezza Rice: Former Secretary of State
At a board meeting for D.C.’s Aspen Institute, Condoleezza Rice was approached about participating in the PBS series Finding Your Roots. Modern DNA analysis techniques are more powerful than ever, and when Rice agreed to be on the show, she had a previous viewpoint completely turned around. The first female African-American secretary of state used to believe she came from a line of strong Black men. What her genealogy revealed, aside from the fact that she could trace her past back to the Tikar tribe of Cameroon, was that she came from a line of strong Black women, including her great, great grandmother Sinai, or “Zina.”
Rice also found that she has a high admixture of European DNA in the mix, prompting host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to note that the term “race” is about a lot more than color. Zina (no surname) was a single mother with five children. Rice already knew from family lore that Zina was a favored house-servant who was allegedly impregnated by her White (Italian) master. Italian given names were common throughout the generations that followed. “Condoleezza” comes from the combination of two words for a piano term meaning “with sweetness.” Rice rejects the terminology of “African-American,” as there is no corresponding use of “European-American,” just American.
4. Bill Cosby: Actor, Author & Comedian
William Henry “Bill” Cosby, Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1937. One of four boys born to parents William Henry Cosby, Sr., a U.S. Navy sailor, and Anna Pearl Cosby (nee Hite), a maid, young Bill was very involved socially and in extra-curricular activities. He was president of his class as well as captain of both the track and field and baseball teams in high school. Mostly, though, he recalls what his teachers noted – that he was the class clown. He reportedly enjoyed making the other kids laugh to the detriment of his studies. In junior high he also began acting. Cosby was a hard-working teen who worked jobs before and after school. Because of his many activities he failed grade 10, but soon joined the navy and later got his equivalency, then attended college on a track-and-field scholarship. He continued on in acting and comedy, and has definitely made his mark!
In the 1980s, after Fat Albert and during the making of The Cosby Show, Cosby researched his genealogy with the help of Johni Cerny, who published a paper on her findings in March, 1987 with the National Genealogical Society. The results? Cosby’s great, great, great grandmother, a slave named Maria (no surname) born in 1797, was owned by one John Cosby, a small-plantation owner in Nelson County, Virginia.
3. Al Sharpton: Baptist Minister, Civil-Rights Leader & White House Advisor
Al Sharpton is a Baptist minister known for his lifetime involvement in race issues. From Brooklyn, New York, Sharpton has been embroiled in many legal battles and has personally organized innumerable (peaceful) protests, being arrested on several occasions. Although he represents Christianity and racial justice, many have accused him of often having inflamed situations. Then again, anyone who says what some do not wish to hear may be seen as inflammatory. Sharpton, a civil-rights activist once described as “the president’s go-to Black leader,” discovered he had slave ancestry quite by chance. A Daily News reporter was asked by ancestry.com to participate in having a family tree done. This reporter then asked Sharpton if he, too, was willing to participate. The minister reportedly said, “Go for it.”
Suddenly, not only did Sharpton know he had an ancestor who’d been a slave, but further Coleman Sharpton, his great grandfather (originally owned by a plantation owner with surname Sharpton), was in later life owned by a Julia Thurmond. She turned out to be none other than Strom Thurmond’s grand aunt (her grandfather was the politician’s great, great grandfather). Yes, political bigwig Strom Thurmond, at one time an avid supporter of racial segregation, was related to the person who ‘owned’ Sharpton’s ancestor. Reverend Sharpton met the late Strom Thurmond once, describing the meeting as “awkward.” It’s a good thing the two didn’t yet know this shared aspect of their family trees!
2. Michelle Obama: First Lady
Current First Lady Michelle Obama’s tale of ancestry begins in Clayton County, Georgia, circa 1852. Her great, great, great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, arrived on the farm where she would be ‘owned’ by and work for Michelle Obama’s great, great, great, great grandfather, the father of Charles Marion Shields, who would impregnate Melvinia at age 15. Charles ended up being a schoolteacher, and Michelle’s White relations, knowing Melvinia went on to have more mixed-race children after the civil war, like to think the relationship with Charles was a consensual one.
Two years of research and DNA testing for Michelle Obama turned up all sorts of facts and extended family, too, some of whom are open to the findings and who welcome being related to the First Lady, and others who have refused to speak about or in any way acknowledge the news. Obama’s White ancestors were reportedly not grand folk: They were of a small percentage of landowners in their area who owned human property, and would have worked alongside their slaves in the fields. Now some of their White descendants will not even shake the First Lady’s hand.
1. Samuel L. Jackson: Actor, Producer & (former) Civil Rights Activist
This renowned actor born in Washington, D.C. has had his roots traced back to the Benga tribe of Gabon, in French West Africa. What does this mean for the man who was raised by his grandfather, a janitor, in Chattanooga, Tennessee?
Jackson consistently presents the impression that his ancestry is, while perhaps interesting, of little import to the person he has become. He’s a straight-shooter, a stand-up man, independent of color, ancestry or job description. No mention is made in interviews of an actual family tree or lineage traceable to specific slave ancestors, making Jackson one of the majority – a multitude whose history can only be guessed at, but is nonetheless unquestionable.