Most African-Americans struggle to trace their ancestors past Emancipation, as slavery erased names and family ties with brutal efficiency. But in this Sunday’s episode of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on PBS, musician John Legend discovers the extraordinary lost story of a free black ancestor in his family’s past.
The research teams on Finding Your Roots, the TV series that explores race, culture and identity through the genealogy and genetics of some of America’s best-known personalities, were able to trace Legend’s ancestry back to his fifth great-grandfather, a man named Peyton Polley. Polley was born a slave around 1797, but he was freed in Kentucky by his owner’s will. Polley’s children remained in slavery, however, until his brother managed to buy their freedom and move them to Ohio in 1849. What happened to the Polley family after that was horrific: slave catchers, kidnappings, a prolonged legal battle and, finally, freedom again.
This Sunday’s episode of the series, which premiered on March 25 and runs through May 20, tells the incredible stories of the free black ancestors of both Legend and comedian Wanda Sykes. Meanwhile, Dr. Gates and his 98-year-old friend Margarett Cooper delve into the mysteries shrouding the free people of color in their family trees.
Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the PBS series that explores race, culture and identity through the genealogy and genetics of some of America’s best-known personalities, amps up the star power in its five remaining episodes. In upcoming weeks, Professor Gates unveils surprising facts about The Avengers co-stars Robert Downey, Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal, along with John Legend, comedian Margaret Cho, and actors Adrian Grenier and Michelle Rodriguez.
Finding Your Roots made headlines since it premiered on PBS last month. News that entertainer Harry Connick, Jr,’s privateer ancestor captained a ship called the Rattlesnake (“That’s badass,” Connick exclaimed), that media icon Barbara Walters and education visionary Geoffrey Canada both had name changes in their families, and that award-winning actors and married couple Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon are also distant relatives fueled spirited national discussions about our shared history as Americans. Gates promises future reveals in the series that will keep viewers surprised and riveted.