Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a professor of African-American studies and English at Harvard University, a literary scholar who writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times and other A-list publications and has 14 books on his resume. But most people know him as an enthusiastic, almost evangelical proponent of genealogical research thanks to Finding Your Roots, a popular PBS series in which he and his team have traced the lineage of notables ranging from Samuel L. Jackson to Barbara Walters to Georgia Congressman John Lewis.
Both Gates’ personae were on sartorially elegant display at Athens’ historic Morton Theatre this week when he delivered the 2015 Peabody-Smithgall lecture to a near capacity house.
His topic, “Genealogy, Genetics And Race,” was scholarly, but he started off folksy, quickly enthralling the audience with memories of his own mixed-race heritage, including one grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, who “was so white we called him Caspar.”
Gates, a West Virginia native, said it was years before he fully grasped how this could be so and how complex his racial background was. He said he knows now that his ancestors include a white woman who had a child by a black man and a black woman whose children were all fathered by a white man. His show-and-tell illustrations included a faded photo his an ancestor, the formidable-looking Jane Gates (1819-1888), a slave-born midwife.
Gates said that the advent of DNA analysis had been a huge boon to genealogically curious African Americans like himself because paper records, pre-Civil War, are so scarce and sketchy. And in exploring his own history, he said, he had learned much more about African-American heritage in general and the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 1700s and 1800s, much of it surprising.
Research into the extent of the slave trade indicated that approximately 12.5 million African captives were shipped to the New World, he said, and it’s estimated that about 15 percent of those died in transit. He asked the racially diverse audience to guess how many of the survivors were sold in Charleston or some other North American port.
People shouted out guesstimates: “2 million,” “4 million.”
Actually, Gates said, the reliably documented figure is about 388,000. Far more slaves were shipped to what is now Brazil (4.8 million) and even Jamaica (1 million) and Cuba (778,000).
Gates wrapped up his presentation with more data that undercut conventional wisdom. The importing of slaves to North America had essentially stopped by 1820. By the time of the Civil War, most of the approximately 4 million Americans of African descent were American born. Almost half a million of those were free men and women, not slaves, and slightly more than half of that number resided in Southern states where slavery was still legal, not the “free” North.
“These people stayed where they had friends,” Gates said. “It just shows you the complexity of race and class.”
As did his entire performance, which received a standing ovation.
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Author’s note: The Peabody-Smithgall lecture series takes its name from Mrs. Lessie Smithgall, a University of Georgia graduate who, as a young woman working at WSB Radio in Atlanta, introduced her boss, Lambdin Kay, to her mentor, John Drewry, dean of the university’s journalism school. Kay and Drewry went on to found the Peabody Awards program, soon to celebrate its 75th anniversary of honoring stories that matter in electronic media. Previous Peabody-Smithgall lecturers include CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, former Time Inc. editor-in-chief John Huey, and former PBS president (and UGA alumnus) Pat Mitchell. Professor Gates won a Peabody Award in 2014 for The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a multi-part PBS documentary series about African-American history.