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Gates find genealogical patchwork

Henry Louis Gates Jr

Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, will speak in Toledo on Thursday.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s fame was thrust into a new realm beyond academic circles nearly three years ago. But the incident that resulted in a “beer summit” at the White House is not a topic that one of the nation’s most prolific intellectuals cares to discuss.

Gates was arrested at his home in July, 2009, by Cambridge, Mass. police officers who received a 911 call about men breaking into a residence — the professor’s own home. Finding the door jammed after returning from doing research overseas, Gates and his driver tried to force it open. Break-ins that had occurred in that area led to the report about a burglary in progress.

Though charges of disorderly conduct against him were subsequently dropped, Gates’ arrest hurled him into the public spotlight amid a fierce debate over racism and justice. The incident prompted comment from President Obama, who met with Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, over beer at the White House.

That incident, said the Harvard University professor in a recent telephone interview, is history. Over.

The African-American scholar — speaking at the Authors! Authors! program at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Stranahan Theater — would rather talk about his documentaries and work in genealogy that reveal the ancestral roots of some recognizable Americans. The speakers’ series is sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

What Gates is finding and revealing in his work in genealogy — the subject of his talk in Toledo — could narrow the chasm that separates the races.

In the 10-part series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard’s Alphonse Fletcher University Professor presents notable Americans with details about their ancestry. The interest in ancestry has drawn millions of viewers, Gates said.

The program airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. on WGTE-TV, Channel 30. Tonight he is scheduled to talk with actor Samuel L. Jackson, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Brown University President Ruth Simmons. Gates, the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research, also has explored the family histories of numerous others, including musician Brandford Marsalis, journalist Barbara Walters, actor Robert Downey, Jr., actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, the Rev. Rick Warren, comedian Margaret Cho, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Learning about one’s ancestors can be a moving experience, Gates acknowledged. For example, it’s one thing to read about the role of the Civil War in slavery. It’s quite another to learn that your ancestors, newly freed from slavery, registered to vote and bought land, as Lewis’ forebears did. Considering his lifelong fight on the voting and civil rights fronts, no wonder the Georgia congressman was moved to tears. Clearly, as he said on the program, the makeup of his DNA contains the need to ensure voting rights.

“Many people just break down and cry [when I] tell them about the sacrifices their ancestors made,” Gates said.

The DNA testing companies Gates uses are and Family Tree DNA. He is finding that the genetic background of an American citizen hardly remains within the confines of such overly simplistic racial descriptions as black and white.

“The diversity of America is reflected in our trees and in our genes. You should have your DNA done. Everyone should have their family tree done first,” he said.

Gates said it’s important for African-Americans to know their ancestry because those “family ties were disrupted and interrupted. Knowledge of ancestry was deprived us. Every African-American is 20 percent European ancestry. Thirty-five percent of African-American men descend from a white man. It’s mind boggling.”

Even though he is the author of numerous works of literature, the editor-in-chief of, and producer, writer, and presenter of documentaries — and those are only a few of his long list of titles — Gates is not completely consumed with work. The father of two daughters — Maggie, 31, and Liza, 29 — said he loves watching movies, traveling, and fishing.

“I go to movies every weekend; two or three a weekend,” he said. “I love my day job as a professor, but my second job is making films.”

During his summers on Martha’s Vineyard, he rides his “very sophisticated” tricycle 16 miles a day.

From Piedmont, W.Va., where he maintains ties, Gates said he writes a couple of hours at the start of each day.

“I am a morning person and all my creativity is in the morning,” he said, adding that answering email first thing in the morning “kind of primes the pump. I had a professor once when I was in undergrad at Yale who said if you write a page a day, then in a year you have a book.”

Contact Rose Russell at or 419-724-6178.

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