By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
Henry Louis Gates Jr. remembers staring at his grandfather’s corpse in a Maryland funeral home in 1960.
“My grandfather was so white we called him ‘Casper’ behind his back,” Gates told a packed crowd during the Living the Dream event Friday night at Ivy Tech Event Center.
In death, the man looked even whiter. He looked like he was coated in alabaster and sprinkled with baby powder, Gates said.
The then-9-year-old Gates looked at his own darker skin and was a bit shocked.
He brushed it off until later when he was at his grandparents’ house and his dad called him and his brother up to the couple’s bedroom, somewhere they were never allowed.
Gates’ father opened up a closet and pulled out old bank ledgers that had been converted into scrapbooks.
They contained clippings of automobile accidents, train accidents, news about those who had died in the war and stories on black history.
Then the Gates family came to a clipping near the back of one of the scrapbooks. It was an obituary for Jane Gates, who died Jan. 6, 1888.
She had been a slave until the 1860s and bought her own home for $1,200 in 1870. It was in a white neighborhood in Maryland.
Gates’ father told him and his brother, “That’s the oldest Gates. Don’t you ever forget her.”
And Gates didn’t.
He suddenly had this “irresistible impulse” to know how he was connected to that woman and how he was connected to her son, who looked so different from him, and that man’s son who looked even more different.
His dad later bought him a notebook from a convenient store. He used it to interview his parents about his family history, he said.
That was the beginning of his fascination with genealogy and genetics.
Today, Gates is a Harvard University professor and nationally-renowned expert in examining the past.
Gates hosts a PBS program called “Finding Your Roots.”
On the show, Gates and his production team comb through family stories to discover unknown histories and relatives the guests never knew existed. When the paper trails end for each story, he uses DNA to trace bloodlines.
He traced the family histories of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, John Legend and Sanjay Gupta.
But he wanted to know more about his own history, too. He wanted to trace his roots across the ocean.
He used geneticists to look at his DNA. They told him he came from the Nubian people, the first black pharaohs in the 25th dynasty of Egypt, Gates said.
He’s only 50 percent black, though.
That’s not surprising, Gates said. The average African American is 77 percent black and almost 20 percent white.
And 35 percent of black people don’t even descend from black men. They come from a white man who impregnated a black woman in slavery, Gates said.
He traced his own white DNA to Ireland. Gates said he descends from a white woman who was impregnated by a black slave.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” Gates said during his presentation.
That’s what fascinates him about genealogy, he said. And it’s what fascinates others, too.
Gates said he and 40 other scholars came up with an idea to use genealogy to help inner-city black youth.
Friday, Gates wondered aloud what Martin Luther King Jr. would think about today’s world.
He would surely be astonished that our country has a black president and happy that the black middle class has quadrupled since 1968, Gates said.
“But the percentage of black families living in poverty is depressing,” Gates said.
That number has dropped only two percentage points from 36 percent in 1968.
And one in five black males are now in prison. Nearly half of all black children who start kindergarten never graduate from high school, Gates said. More than 70 percent of all black babies are born to mothers who aren’t married.
“We have to do something about the crisis in the African-American community,” Gates said. “African-American children have lost their way.”
They no longer understand the value of a good education.
Gates said he wants to use genealogy to “seduce” inner-city kids into the love of learning.
“Who wouldn’t be turned on by that curriculum?” he asked the 470 people at the Ivy Tech event center.
He envisions children interviewing parents and grandparents and looking at census records and property and tax records.
Every child would do their own family tree.
Three-hundred schools have already volunteered to be a part of the pilot program. One school from every region in the country will be chosen, Gates said.
“We can make them passionate about their identities,” he said. “It’s a small contribution, but we have to start somewhere.”