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Scott D. Pierce: 'Faces of America' host recommends asking Mormons for help with genealogy

'Faces of America' hopes to increase interest in genealogy

Stephen Colbert, left, learns about his family history from Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Stephen Colbert, left, learns about his family history from Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Joseph Sinnott

PASADENA, Calif. — Henry Louis Gates has an obvious interest in genealogy.

The man behind the PBS documentary series "African American Lives" and "African American Lives 2" has expanded his focus in "Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates Jr." (Wednesday, 7 p.m., Ch. 7). This time, the Harvard scholar uses both genealogy and genetics to explore the lives of a dozen famous Americans.

He's all in favor of other Americans learning about their family history, too. And he's got a suggestion about how people should start to do their genealogy.

"I encourage everyone to start with ancestry.com. Do you all know about the Mormons and their valuation of genealogy?" Gates asked TV critics.

(The Provo-based company is not owned by or affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

Gates readily admitted that he's not an expert on the beliefs of the LDS Church, but he expressed appreciation for the results.

"Well, they believed that they could baptize your dead ancestors," Gates said. "Now, I don't want to get into that. I'm not a Mormon. But I am glad that they have this belief because they have digitized billions of records. They'll go to a parish church and beat on the door and ask the priest, 'Can we digitize all your marriage records and baptismal records?' They'll go to county courthouse and digitize property records and deeds.

"So you can go in and you just type in the name of one of your ancestors and it will tell you everything in that database."

Executive producer Dyllan McGee was equally enthused.

"You can find documents and you can even guess. If you don't know exactly when one of your relatives died and you can give a range, it is phenomenal," he said. "They'll give you an option. Does it sound like this person (or) this person? And it automatically builds it together.

"It's a phenomenal tool."

"It's the best way," Gates said. "And then go to your local genealogical society. There are many genealogical societies throughout the United States, and they'll help you for free."

UNWANTED ATTENTION: Gates made headlines last year when he was arrested for supposedly trying to break into his own home.

That incident led to the so-called "beer summit" at the White House with Gates, President Barack Obama and the arresting officer.

None of which comes up in "Faces of America." Because, of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with the documentary series.

CELEBRITY STORIES: "Faces of America" tells some amazing stories as examples of what can be learned about family history — both from genealogy and genetics.

Eleven of the 12 celebrities underwent dense genotyping to trace his or her father's and mother's ancestry. And they also learned a lot about their family histories.

The 12 celebrities featured in the four-part series are professor and poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, novelist Louise Erdrich, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, "Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria Parker, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, director Mike Nichols, Queen Noor of Jordan, television host/surgeon Mehmet Oz, actress Meryl Streep and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

"It was truly a gift," said Yamaguchi, "and I couldn't wait to talk to all of my relatives on both sides and tell them what I've learned. To tell them to watch the special, because it really is something. … This truly was an amazing thing for our family."

Among the surprises — it turns out that Ma and Longoria are related. And Longoria's family has been in Texas since 1603 — 17 years before the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock.

"One of the reasons I was glad for this story is that there's so much immigrant baiting," Gates said. "This is a series about America. We are a nation of immigrants. … And here is a Mexican-American family that's been here since 1603 on the same piece of land. It's incredible.

"And I would hope that stories like this would help to change our sense of the history of the United States. And it wasn't an Anglo-WASP history. It was much more complex than that."

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com