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Nurturing a passion for genealogy

As a young child, Henry Louis Gates was introduced to a cabinet full of scrapbooks chronicling major events in the life of his family and community. One scrapbook, containing the obituary of Jane Gates, sparked in Gates a desire to uncover his genealogical roots.

According to the obituary, Jane Gates was “an estimable colored woman.” As a young boy just nine years old, Gates didn’t know what the word “estimable” meant, but the phrase stuck with him and later that night, he pulled his red dictionary off the shelf and looked the word up. Estimable, meaning deserving of admiration or respect, seemed well-suiteHenry Louis Gates interacts with audienced, Gates thought, to define a woman who was a slave until 1865 and then purchased the Gates family home in Cumberland, Maryland in 1870.

So intrigued by this “estimable” women of his family’s past, Gates began interviewing family members and tracing his family tree.

With this family tale, an evening of storytelling and sharing facts and stats about genetics and genealogy was underway. Gates, visiting Messiah as the keynote lecturer for the spring humanities symposium and the Centennial, presented an informative, entertaining lecture to a large, captive audience in Brubaker Auditorium on Feb. 25

What Gates learned from exploring his own family tree and from a serious case of what he coined “Alex Haley’s ’Roots’ envy” inspired his hit PBS television series, “African American Lives.” The program identifies prominent people from various ethnic backgrounds and uses a combination of genetics and genealogy to uncover greater depths of their family history. The results can be surprising, said Gates, as sometimes family myths that have been passed down for generations are debunked.

Gates himself discovered that he is 49.4% European (and the descendent of an Irish king) and 50.6% African, joking that on paper or in a lab he looks like a white man. He’s made profound discoveries for people like Oprah Winfrey, Eva Longoria, and Meryl Streep as well.

“What we’re able to do by doing these family trees is change the historical record.” He added, we’re providing details and stories never recorded in the history books.

Gates is the Alphonese Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. In addition, he is editor-in-chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American Studies and Africana Studies, and of “The Root,” an online news magazine dedicated to coverage of African American news, culture, and genealogy.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News, a local newspaper with circulation 300,000+, covered the lecture in their Feb. 28 edition. Read the story, “Lineage paints with a wide brush.”

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