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African-American genealogy: Researchers share stories of joy, fulfillment

One of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s most memorable moments from his PBS show “Finding Your Roots” came with U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis was one of the notable civil rights leaders who led more than 600 people on a peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma toward Montgomery, Alabama, advocating for the right to vote. As portrayed in the recent film “Selma,” Alabama state troopers interrupted the marchers with violence, and Lewis was among those badly beaten.

In researching Lewis’ family tree during the first season of “Finding Your Roots,” Gates found that the first thing Lewis' great-great-grandfather Tobias Carter did in 1865 when set free from slavery by the 13th Amendment was register to vote.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Gates said. “We found this incredible document, and I showed it to Congressman Lewis. When he looked up, I said, ‘John, no one in your whole line has voted between your great-great-grandfather and you.’ He looked at me, blinked, then his head fell over and hit the book, and he wept. He wiped his eye and said, ‘I guess it’s in my DNA, this right to vote.’ Then he said, ‘This is too much.’

“(Genealogy) is like taking them on a time machine and you are introducing them to their ancestors,” Gates said. “I used to think only black people had what I call ‘genealogical amnesia,’ but it’s not true. Everybody does.”

In commemoration of Black History Month, the Deseret News interviewed Gates, professional genealogist Megan Smolenyak and family historian Prince Furlow about their experiences with African-American family history work. Gates and Smolenyak also shared advice and resource tips for building one’s family tree, which can become all-consuming.

“Once you get started, it might become addicting,” Gates said.

'I have been hooked'

In addition to his PBS show, Gates is the director of the Hutchins Center for African-American Research at Harvard University. He’s a literary scholar, filmmaker, journalist and genealogist, among many other professional pursuits, honors and accolades.

Gates said his interest in genealogy started at age 9 with the death of his grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates. He recalls his father taking his hand and leading him to his grandfather's body in a Maryland funeral home.

“I was petrified,” Gates said. “It was the closest I’d ever been to a corpse. He was as white as white can be. He looked like a marble statue. … For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how someone who was so phenotypically Euro-American could have a grandson that looked like me (African-American). I was fascinated by that.”

Next, his father took Gates and his brother to his grandparents' bedroom, where he pulled out a scrapbook. The old bank ledger was full of news clippings and photos. His father turned the pages until he found an obituary dated Jan. 6, 1888, which included a photo. The obituary began, “Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman."

That same photo of Jane Gates now hangs in the kitchen of Gates’ Massachusetts home.

“My father said, ‘I don’t want you boys to forget, this is the oldest Gates, and she was a slave,'” Gates said. “'Never forget her name.'”

The next day was the Fourth of July. On the way home, Gates asked his father to buy him a composition book. That night, he interviewed his parents about their ancestors and compiled his family tree.

“I had no idea what family tree meant, or what genealogy meant, nothing. I was compelled to do this instinctively because I wanted to situate myself in relationship to this white-looking man who was my grandfather and this woman who (had) brown skin who was his grandmother, a slave,” Gates said. “I have been hooked on genealogy since that July 4, 1960.”

In 2000, Dr. Rick Kittles, a co-founder of, introduced Gates to the idea of using DNA to trace maternal and paternal lineages of African descent. It was shortly thereafter that Gates woke up in the middle of the night with the idea to do the show “African-American Lives,” which eventually became “Finding Your Roots.”

In tracing his family lines, Gates learned that he was descended from a patriot in the Revolutionary War and that many of his ancestors lived within a 30-mile radius of where he was born.

“One of the greatest satisfactions of my whole life is to have played a small role in the renaissance of ancestry-tracing among Americans in general and among African-Americans more specifically through my PBS series,” Gates said. “Every people, every ethnic group, has this urge to ground yourself in the world by constructing your individual family tree. We are all part of a larger moment, a manifestation of the zeitgeist, which literally means a spirit of the times.”

'I love what I do'

Megan Smolenyak is a professional genealogist, writer, speaker and TV guest, although she would describe herself as “a genealogical adventurer who solves mysteries.”

Smolenyak has published six books and appeared on "Good Morning America," "The Today Show," CNN, BBC and other television networks. She has done genealogical research for the U.S. Army and the FBI, and she has served as a consultant for the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?" which allowed her to trace family lines of several celebrities. She was also once a chief family historian for

“This may sound a little grandiose, but I feel I was put here to inspire other people to discover their roots,” Smolenyak said in a phone interview. “I count my lucky stars that I get to wake up each day and solve mysteries for a living. I love what I do. … I’m all about anything that gets what I call ‘the g-word’ out there.”

Smolenyak’s passion began in sixth grade with a homework assignment to find the origin of her surname. She realized there was something different about her name, and it sparked her interest, she said.

Later she met someone who shared the same surname — her future husband, Brian Smolenyak. She discovered there are four Smolenyak families in the world that all come from a tiny village in Slovakia but aren’t related.

“I don’t know what is weirder: that I married another Smolenyak or that I managed to find one who is not related to me,” she said. “This actually got me into DNA testing as a first case study. Turns out none of the four were related. That’s when I got excited about genetic genealogy.”

Like with her own heritage, African-American genealogy can be challenging to do but very rewarding, she said. When Smolenyak approached Robin Roberts of ABC’s "Good Morning America," Roberts wasn’t interested.

“She didn’t think I would get very far,” Smolenyak said.

When the genealogist was able to trace Roberts’ line back to the 1790s, the news anchor changed her tune.

“A lot of people don’t do it because they think they are not going to get very far,” Smolenyak said. “But it is possible. It just takes a little effort.”

In 2009, Smolenyak was asked by the New York Times to tackle Michelle Obama’s family tree. Many had attempted the first lady’s family tree, but no one had been able to uncover her maternal grandparents. With time and on her own dime, Smolenyak cracked the code and traced each branch back four or five generations. She eventually met President Barack Obama and the first lady and personally felt their appreciation.

“She wound up having roots in 11 different Southern states. It was remarkable,” Smolenyak said. “It was one of my favorite cases I ever worked on.”

Smolenyak said former NFL running back Emmitt Smith was one of the most excited to discover his family roots. She worked with him as a consultant for “Who Do You Think You Are?” He peppered her with questions off camera, but she couldn’t reveal anything because the show wanted his reaction on camera to be authentic.

“The interesting thing about these celebrity roots shows is that people will come to watch the celebrities, but their favorite episodes are the ones that feature something close to their own family story. They come for the celebrity but stay for the story,” Smolenyak said. “I like having the opportunity to play some small role in getting more people enthusiastic about it. I kind of like the ones like Robin Roberts, where they start out like a 'Doubting Thomas' and end up being converted. You see the light go on, and that’s really nice.”

Expanding families

Unlike Gates and Smolenyak, Prince Furlow is not a professional genealogist. Even so, the Vermont resident has found success tracing his African-American roots by using basic free resources like those available on

Furlow’s father wasn’t around when he was growing up, but he had a desire to learn more about him and started there. Using census records, he tracked family movements from Louisiana to Texas and California. In the process, Furlow not only uncovered his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, but also discovered he had a half-brother and half-sister he had never met. He met his half-sister, Yolanda Dove, more than a year ago in California. He is planning to meet his half-brother this year.

“It has been wonderful,” said Furlow, a recent convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “FamilySearch has opened up so much more to me and added a piece to my life that I didn’t realize I was missing. It has expanded my family tenfold.”

Advice and resources

One of the easiest ways for people to get started on their family tree is to type the name of a grandparent into websites like or The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture's website,, can provide additional resources for African-American research.

Gates was especially complimentary of FamilySearch and of the LDS Church for its focus on preserving records.

"The world owes a debt to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The genealogical records assembled by the LDS Church and the impulse to preserve the records of ancestry has been one of the greatest gifts that any religion has given to the world, and that’s from my heart,” he said. “I have my own religious beliefs and I respect everyone’s rights to their own beliefs, but this aspect of the Mormon church is one of the greatest gifts to civilization because it enables the maintenance of these records. It enables people all over the world who don’t have to be Mormon — you can be anything — to reassemble their family tree. That is a great gift to scholarship, to knowledge and to human civilization in the 21st century."

To get started, Gates said his best advice would be to sit down and interview your oldest living relative right now. Record it and get as much concrete evidence as you can, Gates said.

Be wary of family myths and same last names. Another common myth Gates has encountered is that everyone is descended from a Cherokee princess or has a Native American lineage.

“We used to think we were descended from the Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates. Just because you have the same last name doesn’t mean you are a descendant,” Gates said. “Most of us have zero Native American history. You are probably not descended from Pocahontas.”

When you hit a wall it can be frustrating, but don’t be afraid to go to a family history center, library or genealogical society and ask for advice. You may also want to hire a professional genealogist, Gates said.

Smolenyak agreed, adding that despite the challenges, if you are persistent and hungry enough, the brick walls will eventually fall.

“To anybody who gets discouraged, there is a paper trail out there,” she said. “Sooner or later, your ancestors will meet you halfway.”

Once you get past the names and dates, the real fun begins as you discover the details of your ancestors' lives and feel a real connection, Smolenyak said.

"Don't just make it about putting as many names as you can on a chart," she said. "Get past the basics. Do make an effort to get to know your ancestors as living, breathing people. The real heart of genealogy is the stories."


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