Oprah was one of the first celebrities to trace her family's roots for the groundbreaking PBS series African American Lives. After taking a DNA test in 2006, Oprah discovered that her ancestry dates back to the Kpelle, an African ethnic group that once lived in the country we now call Liberia.
The man who led her down this path of self-discovery was Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and pioneer in the field of genealogy. "I've got to say, when it happened to me, it was absolutely empowering to know the journey of my entire family," Oprah says.
For decades, Dr. Gates says he's been fascinated by family trees, but in July 2009, he made national headlines for something other than his research.
After a confrontation with a police officer at his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, Dr. Gates was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct. His arrest sparked a racially fueled national uproar, which led to the first-ever White House Beer Summit.
President Barack Obama, Dr. Gates and the arresting officer, James Crowley, sat down over mugs of beer and talked out the conflict. Since then, Dr. Gates says he and Officer Crowley have developed a really good relationship.
In fact, Dr. Gates says he and Officer Crowley are more than friends. After asking Officer Crowley to take a DNA test, Dr. Gates discovered they're distant cousins!
"He and I descend from the same Irish ancestor," Dr. Gates says. "Eight percent of the men in Ireland have our identical DNA, and we all descend from King Niall of the Nine Hostages. It was good to be the king—the guy slept with everybody in the kingdom." Regis Philbin also shares the same ancestor, a bloodline that dates back to 450 A.D.
Dr. Gates says Officer Crowley recently gave him the handcuffs used in his arrest. "They have his name, Crowley, etched on them," Dr. Gates says. The handcuffs will be donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to be completed in 2015.
As Officer Crowley and Dr. Gates discovered, it's a small world. Despite our different races, religions and cultures, family trees intertwine, and humans are, ultimately, connected. This fact is proven in Dr. Gates' new PBS series, Faces of America.
When Oscar®-winning actors, Olympic Games medalists and celebrated musicians allowed Dr. Gates to trace their roots, many were surprised by the results.
Actress Eva Longoria always thought of herself as a Mexican-American, but a DNA test showed that she's actually 70 percent European, 27 percent Native American and 3 percent African.
"To know that I have a majority Spanish blood is a little...you know, I've been so proud of being Mexican—Mexican from Mexico," she says. "To know that that's not really who I am."
"It's not only who you are," Dr. Gates says.
Cutting-edge DNA research also leads to some surprising family connections. Eva finds out she's related to Grammy®-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and actress Meryl Streep discovers she's linked to director Mike Nichols, a man she's worked with on four films.
Dr. Gates says he's been interested in ancestry since the day his grandfather died in June 1960.
"It was my father's father, and my father took my brother and me up to look at his scrapbooks, which we didn't even know he kept, right after we had buried him," he says. "He had the obituary of the oldest Gates, Jane Gates, who died January 6, 1888. He showed us this obituary in the scrapbook, and it said, 'Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman.'"
That night, Dr. Gates says he looked up the definition of estimable—worthy of esteem or respect—in his red Webster's dictionary. "The next day, I started doing family trees," he says.
Decades later, Dr. Gates says he has the greatest job in the world. "I get to introduce people to ancestors who have been lost from their awareness," he says. "I get to bring back people from their past and let them experience them, meet them, encounter them and see themselves through these shadows from the past."
If you're interested in tracing your family's roots, Dr. Gates says there are two ways to get started. You can log on to websites like Ancestry.com, which has a monthly subscription fee, and search a database for distant relatives.
Dr. Gates says the second option is your local genealogical society. "I live in Cambridge, as you know, [where] it's the New England Genealogical Society. You can walk in off the street. There's one in New York," he says. "They're all over the country."