GATES: I'm Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Welcome to "Finding Your Roots."
In this episode, we'll travel to New York City to meet actors Nathan Lane and Leslie Odom, Jr, two men who followed their dreams to Broadway are now going to meet the ancestors who paved their way.
LANE: Well, this is very exciting, it makes me want to have a party.
ODOM: What a, what a miracle we all are.
That these small and big decisions that people made before we got here, made us possible.
GATES: To uncover their roots, we've used every tool available.
Genealogists helped stitch together the past from the paper trail their ancestors left behind.
LANE: Oh my lord!
GATES: While DNA experts utilized the latest advances in genetic analysis to reveal secrets hundreds of years old.
Did it ever occur to you that you descend from a white man?
GATES: And we've compiled it all into a book of life.
A record of all of our discoveries.
LANE: There's so much I haven't known about all of these people, and the fact that you've gone back this far is overwhelming.
ODOM: It is a real re-imagining of self.
GATES: My guests have given voice to iconic roles, inspiring audiences around the world.
In this episode, they're going to meet a cast of characters every bit as dramatic as the people they've played on-stage.
Hearing stories, both tragic and uplifting, that have never been told before.
(theme music plays).
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ GATES: On Broadway, Nathan Lane is a veritable king.
A fearless, utterly brilliant entertainer, who's packed theaters for decades, delighting audiences with his irrepressible wit.
♪ Just like Cain and Abel ♪ ♪ You pulled a sneak attack ♪ ♪ I thought that we were brothers ♪ ♪ Then you stabbed me in the back ♪ ♪ Betrayed!
♪ ♪ Oh boy, I'm so betrayed!
♪ GATES: But the man who's brought so much joy to so many has only done so by setting aside a great deal of private pain.
Nathan grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, the son of a truck driver, and his childhood was fraught, as his father struggled with a drinking problem that his mother proved powerless to stop.
What were they like as a couple?
LANE: How much time do we have, Dr. Gates?
GATES: You can take your time.
What I knew of them as a couple was not good.
LANE: The one thing I remember though this one time I was at a celebration, like a holiday or Christmas celebration and people were dancing, and my mother and father were there together, which was a rare thing, and they said to them, oh, get up and dance, you were always the best dancers, and I was quite shocked because I never thought of them in that way, and my mother and father got up and started... (Crying).
And they started to dance, and they were fantastic.
I mean, just, they were dazzling, and I was like, who are these people?
Who are they?
LANE: And look, look at how in sync they are.
LANE: And how not in sync they are on a personal level.
GATES: So, you could see why they fell in love.
It's the only time I can remember where they seemed genuinely happy together.
GATES: This singular memory is all the more poignant because of what came next.
Before his 12th birthday, Nathan's father had died of alcoholism, and his mother had begun to battle clinical depression.
Nathan sought refuge on the stage, and it saved him, giving him confidence, and allowing him to create a new identity, a transformation that was completed when he learned that his birth name, Joseph Lane, was already being used by another performer, meaning that in order to join the Actors' Guild, he had to pick a new name.
LANE: I can remember vividly, there was a woman behind a desk, and she said you're going to have to change your name, and it was sort of traumatic.
I was very, very surprised and she said, it's alright, you can take your time, think about it, and I said, just give me a minute and I sat down and I had played in summer stock I had played Benjamin Franklin in "1776".
LANE: And I had also played, Nathan Detroit, in "Guys and Dolls", in a non-equity dinner theater in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and these were two of my favorite roles and I thought, okay, I'll either be Nathan or Benjamin Lane.
LANE: And I thought for about five minutes and I went over to her and I said, Nathan, I'll be Nathan Lane.
LANE: And I just thought it's a new beginning.
I'm no longer Joe Lane.
I'm now Nathan Lane.
Whoever he's going to be.
GATES: "Nathan Lane," of course, would become a phenomenon: the winner of three Tony awards, along with myriad other accolades.
But from Nathan's own point of view, one of the most significant moments of his life occurred far from the spotlight, with his career still in front of him, when he told his mother that he was gay, marking a new phase in their relationship.
LANE: I was living with her in Rutherford at the time and I was starting to see someone in New York, and I was going to move to New York, and he was one of reasons, but I had told her I was seeing a girl because I didn't want to upset her.
GATES: Of course.
LANE: And then finally, before I left home, I sat her down the night before and I said, you know, you know, we've been through a lot together and I've never lied to you, and so I know I told you I was seeing a girl, but I'm seeing a guy, and she you know, she went pale and she said, you mean you're a homosexual, and I said, I guess so, and she said, I would rather you were dead, and um, and I said, I knew you'd understand.
But she you know, eventually she came to terms with it.
LANE: And success in show business... GATES: That helps.
LANE: Forgives all sins.
GATES: I like that.
Was she a tough critic?
LANE: She... GATES: She attended your shows?
LANE: Oh yes.
The thing she always said to me, which is so sweet, she would say, I'm not saying this because I'm your mother, I'm saying it because it's true, you were the best one.
GATES: My second guest is Leslie Odom, Jr, who came to fame originating the role of Aaron Burr in the smash hit "Hamilton".
♪ Wait for it ♪ ♪ Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it ♪ ♪ I am the one thing in life I can control ♪ ♪ Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it ♪ ♪ I am inimitable ♪ ♪ I am an original ♪ GATES: The performance won him a Tony award and launched a career that shows no sign of letting up.
But to hear Leslie tell it, the key factor in his success is not his magisterial talent, but rather good luck, which has accompanied him since birth.
Indeed, his childhood was almost the mirror opposite of Nathan Lane's.
Leslie grew up with parents who actively supported him, in an environment where he felt completely at home: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
ODOM: I feel so fortunate to have grown up in that town.
One of the final stops on the underground railroad.
I mean, not that there isn't racism in Philly, but, I guess, always integrated school and, and always, um, Black teachers and, and, and always proud and... GATES: Hmm.
ODOM: You know, all of my friends were, were brilliant and beautiful and, and, you know, it was, it was a given that you, could, could speak well, could hold your own in conversation.
You might have some talent at an instrument or be able to sing or dance or something.
You were gonna get good grades.
I mean, you know, I didn't get such great grades but, you know...
There was, you know, I, I ran in a, I ran with a, with a talented set and, and of mostly Black people.
ODOM: You know, so, uh, it was later when people tried to make me feel ashamed of it or tried to make me feel less than because of the color of my skin, it wasn't... GATES: Yeah.
ODOM: It wasn't on the streets of my town.
GATES: Leslie's hometown would be his launching pad.
He began singing as a child in his family's church, and ended up attending the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.
Along the way, he discovered he had a unique gift, and a chance encounter with an iconic piece of musical theater gave him a sense of what he could do with it.
ODOM: I was about 13, 14 years old when this show came out called "Rent".
GATES: Oh, sure.
ODOM: And, um, I didn't so much wanna be in entertainment or, I didn't, certainly wasn't thinking I was gonna be in television or movies.
But I wanted to be in "Rent".
I really did think that...
I will work hard and one day I will be in "Rent".
And I will do that until I'm, I dunno, 40, 45 years old and then you retire, right?
Like, like, that's... GATES: Right.
ODOM: I couldn't see farther than that.
ODOM: That was my ambition.
GATES: Bizarrely, Leslie's "ambition" became his reality.
When he was just 17 years old, he auditioned for the touring company of "Rent", and found himself as a replacement member of the ensemble, on Broadway.
It was a start, and Leslie would spend more than a decade trying to build on it, taking roles wherever he could get them, before honing in on "Hamilton", when it was still in development, and persuading its creators to give him the part of Aaron Burr, the ne'er do-well-founding father with the show-stopping numbers.
It was a life-changing moment, and Leslie still savors it.
That whole production did so much for colorblind casting, for race relations.
You know, people forgot you were Black.
I mean, they could see you were Black but you were Aaron Burr.
GATES: That was, that's magical.
ODOM: I had a desire to, um, to help paint a fuller picture of our humanity.
ODOM: It's a strange thing that I ended up doing that through Aaron Burr's story.
But yeah, I was the avatar.
And so people got to see a young Black man as this complicated, I hope interesting, flawed, beautiful human being.
I wanted to be as beautiful and flawed and brash and bold and brilliant as the people that I know.
ODOM: As the people that raised me.
ODOM: You know?
And so I got to do that.
If I never get to do it again, I got to do it once.
GATES: Leslie and Nathan have realized their childhood ambitions against great odds, and gained a measure of confidence that flows from that success.
But when it comes to their roots, that confidence is less apparent.
Each told me they had questions about entire branches of their family trees.
It was time to provide them with some answers.
I started with Nathan Lane.
His questions were focused upon his father, Daniel Lane, whose early death left Nathan with little more than a handful of haunting memories.
LANE: I can remember walking to school one day on this very bright sunny day, and as I was walking, I was passing a bar and the backdoor was open, and I happened to glance and I saw my father sweeping up in this bar, like obviously to pay for drinks, and I remember he stopped and realized he was being watched and he turned at looked at me.
We just stared at each other... GATES: Hmm.
LANE: And then he went back to sweeping, and I went on to school.
You know, he was someone I'm still trying to figure out.
Who he was, and what happened, and why he was so unhappy.
GATES: Given his father's life, it was no surprise that Nathan had almost no knowledge of his roots.
Nathan told me that he knew that both of his grandparents were Irish immigrants, but beyond that, this side of his family tree was a blank slate.
We began to fill it in, starting with the passenger list for a ship that arrived in New York on June the 5th, 1884.
Onboard was an Irish family of eight, headed by a 40-year old laborer named Bartholomew Lane and his 36 year-old wife, Bridget.
Nathan, that records the moment your grandfather arrived in the United States.
But who's Bartholomew?
GATES: Bartholomew and Bridget are your great-grandparents, and those are their other children, your grandfather's siblings.
GATES: What's it like to learn their names?
LANE: Well, this is very exciting.
It makes me want to have a party.
A family gathering.
LANE: To discuss this.
Isn't that a cool name?
LANE: That's a very cool name.
This is really incredible.
GATES: Nathan wondered why his ancestors had chosen to immigrate.
Our research suggests their motive was likely economic.
By 1884, when they left for America, Ireland was three decades past the great potato famine, but poverty and deprivation were still widespread.
What's more: Irish farmers were facing a wave of evictions amidst plummeting agricultural prices.
This created a phenomenon known as "assisted immigration", a polite term for the removal of people who were so poor that it seemed more effective to pay their way out of the country than to provide them with relief.
Newspaper articles from the era indicate that the ship that brought Nathan's family here, the SS Furnessia, was full of such people.
GATES: So, they were kicking them out, in effect.
They were assisting them out.
They were showing them the door.
LANE: It's just a nice way of saying it.
GATES: These assisted immigrants made up about half of the more than 1,300 passengers.
And on previous voyages of that ship, the Furnessia, the ship, Nathan, averaged 400 passengers.
So, three times as many people were crowded onto that ship to be assisted to leave Ireland.
LANE: My lord.
I didn't know any of this.
GATES: We now set out to see what we could learn about Nathan's family back in Ireland.
Records in County Kerry, where the family lived for generations as landless tenant farmers, suggest that they weren't exactly flourishing in their homeland.
LANE: "Died 1st of May, 1878 in Claddanure, Hanora Hallisy, 70 years, laborer's widow.
Cause of death, cough two weeks.
GATES: That's your great-great- grandmother's death record.
LANE: And she had a cough for two weeks?
For two weeks.
So, you know, that was a sign of what the illness was.
LANE: A touch of consumption... GATES: It could've been, yeah.
LANE: They used to say in the movies.
LANE: Oh, he had a touch of consumption.
GATES: But probably so.
It could have been tuberculosis, which was consumption, or pneumonia.
And you see that other name there, Batt, and Batt is short for Bartholomew.
GATES: He was Hanora's son-in-law, and he served as the informant on her death certificate.
LANE: His, his mark occupier?
And you know what that means?
GATES: It means he signed with an X, that he couldn't read and write.
GATES: So, he likely got no education.
GATES: And just went straight to work as a child.
What's it like to see that in black and white?
LANE: I'm just blown away by all of this.
And, uh... Wow.
That's a tough life.
GATES: Nathan's ancestors were fortunate in one regard.
Irish genealogy is notoriously challenging because historical records are very limited.
But Nathan's family left traces of themselves behind, allowing us to take him back to a wedding held in the township of Claddanure almost two centuries ago.
LANE: Denis Hallisey, Honora Falvey married.
Witnesses: Timothy and Peter Sullivan."
Their gay neighbors.
They had a lot of brunches.
A lot of brunches in Claddanure.
GATES: You just read the marriage record for your great-great-grandparents, Denis Hallisey and Honora Falvey.
GATES: In 1835.
That record is almost 200 years old, and it still exists.
Isn't that amazing?
It does give you a different sense of yourself because you know where you came from.
LANE: I guess I haven't, I haven't known that.
There so much I haven't known about all of these people and the fact that you've gone back this far is overwhelming.
GATES: Does it change the way you think about your father?
LANE: Well, the people he came from, yeah, you just keep seeing the word laborer.
LANE: Laborer and he was a laborer for a long time as well.
And um yeah, you know, it makes me want to talk to him you know, my father again and talk about this you know, how much he might have known or heard about.
LANE: And it certainly makes you even more appreciative of how, of all the good fortune that's come my way when you look back and see what they had to do to survive.
GATES: Much like Nathan, Leslie Odom, Jr was about to see his roots traced back centuries.
But whereas Nathan had suspected that we'd be taking him to Ireland, Leslie had absolutely no idea where we were headed.
Our journey began with his mother's father, a man named Benjamin Nixson.
Growing up, Leslie spent a good deal of time with Benjamin, but even so, he struggled to capture his grandfather's colorful personality.
ODOM: My grandfather, was, uh ... How to describe him, man?
First gun I ever saw was on my grandfather's nightstand.
ODOM: You know... And that he left it out.
And he saw me see it.
And he didn't hide it.
ODOM: And there was, uh, there was a different woman, uh, in his, you know, in his bed.
You know, we, we'd go visit grandpa and we'd, you know, meet whoever the nice lady was.
That was occupying his beds, you know?
For the time being.
And, um... GATES: That's why he needed the gun.
GATES: 'Cause somebody's husband gonna come in there.
ODOM: Yes, and there were... GATES: Old Benjamin, he was a player.
ODOM: Oh, yeah.
Grandad, uh, enjoyed his life, I think.
GATES: While Benjamin may have been open about weapons and romance, his roots were another matter entirely.
Leslie told me that he knew absolutely nothing about the deeper origins of the Nixson family.
Even so, he and I were both surprised when we found Benjamin's father, a man who shared his name, in the 1925 census for Brooklyn, and saw where he came from.
ODOM: "Ben Nixson.
Nativity, South Africa.
Number of years in the U.S. One year.
GATES: Your great-grandfather was born in South Africa.
GATES: Now, I know you saw "Roots".
And one of the reasons people do this show is to find out where they're from in Africa.
But I just told you where you're from.
GATES: You, were from South Africa.
ODOM: That's great.
GATES: So when all of the Black friends that you know are, uh, searching for their African ancestry back in the depths of slavery, yours was right there in the 20th century, brother.
GATES: You know, right at the height of the jazz age... ODOM: Yeah, he moves to Brooklyn.
GATES: This African came here and settled.
ODOM: He comes to New York City.
GATES: He goes, "Hey, I heard about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, I'm gonna check it out."
GATES: Leslie's great-grandfather may have enjoyed New York, but there was a mystery here.
When he arrived, South Africa was a part of the United Kingdom, yet we found no records in either South Africa or in England showing Benjamin leaving his country.
And we could find no record of his arrival in America.
So how did he get here?
We uncovered a tantalizing clue in the crew manifest for a ship that arrived in New York in November of 1920.
ODOM: "Discharged seaman, named B. Nixon.
GATES: Now Leslie, we can't be sure, but this could be your great-grandfather, Benjamin Nixon.
GATES: Arriving in the United States as a ship's crewman.
GATES: This is the only record... ODOM: Mm-hmm.
GATES: That even got close to being of the possibility of registering the arrival of your great-grandfather... ODOM: Sure.
GATES: Into the United States.
GATES: The fact that this man is listed as an assistant steward, would fit your great-grandfather's reported job as a chef in the 1925 census we saw.
Because ship stewards helped prepare and serve meals to passengers.
And if Benjamin was indeed a crewman on a ship, that would explain why there were no immigration records for him.
He was supposed to get back on that ship, but he didn't.
GATES: If this is he, he chose to stay.
GATES: What's it like for you to learn this?
ODOM: Oh, it's um, this is wonderful.
My mom's gonna love to hear that too.
She's gonna love that.
And she'll be floored by it.
Because my grandfather was very, very murky about his past with my, with his children.
GATES: Well, this was a huge shock to us, too.
ODOM: That's amazing.
GATES: At this point, we couldn't document the Nixson family any further.
The name is common in America, and it's unlikely that Leslie's ancestors used it back in Africa.
But turning to another line of Leslie's mother's family tree, we came to a story, just as unlikely, that we could document.
In April of 1903, Leslie's great-great-grandfather, a man named Samuel Whitfield Taylor, arrived in New York City, on a ship, from Barbados!
Did you have any idea?
GATES: So how are you feeling now to discover that, you know, your ancestry's much more complex than you thought?
You are descended from a recent African ancestor and recent West Indian ancestors.
ODOM: Yeah, the, the, the time is a trip, to think that, to think that it's that recent, you know, and that they were coming here willingly.
GATES: Just over a century ago.
ODOM: Yeah, that's, uh, I just would not have guessed that at all.
GATES: Samuel Taylor, or "SW" as he called himself, was an immigrant, and a very successful one at that.
He arrived with less than $40 to his name, but by 1918, he was supporting a wife and four children by running his own handyman business, even advertising in a local newspaper.
He figured out the system.
He became an entrepreneur in less than 20 years.
GATES: Can you relate to this guy?
Do you see any of this entrepreneurial spirit in yourself?
ODOM: Yeah, you know I'm a, I'm a small business man is the way I've thought about myself over the years, you know?
And I have my little shingle hanging up too, and um, you know, I have, I have clients, and I go from job to job, and uh, and I also have to have side gigs you know and things rolling that way.
So yeah, but, but I would've connected that kind of spirit, I would've connected that to my grandpa Ben, or even to my dad who was in sales, you know, before I would've even connected it to the immigrant spirit of S.W.
GATES: Unfortunately, this story was about to darken.
We were able to trace Samuel back two generations in his native Barbados, to Leslie's fourth great grandmother: a woman named Clementina Inniss.
But when we searched for evidence of Clementina's life, we found something painful.
Date February 9, 1834.
There we go.
GATES: You are looking at the baptismal record for your fourth great-grandmother.
GATES: And as you can see, Clementina was born into slavery.
She was owned for the first eight years of her life.
What's it like to see that?
We were doing so well.
Well, you know.
ODOM: But, uh, yeah, to, it's a, it feels like, like a hard stop.
GATES: Roughly 600,000 enslaved Africans were shipped to Barbados, most worked on sugar plantations, under hellish conditions, but Leslie's ancestor Clementina was likely spared this fate.
In 1857, her former owner, Bowman Outtrum, passed away.
And his will added a new layer of complexity to Leslie's family tree.
ODOM: "My remaining funds shall be divided between my son, Robert Thomas Outtrum, and my daughter, Elizabeth Ann Pile, a widow, my illegitimate colored son, John Robert Outtrum, my illegitimate colored daughter, Clementina Inniss."
She was his daughter.
Clementina was his daughter.
GATES: And he acknowledged it.
Sweet little Clementina.
GATES: But you know what this also means?
Bowman Outtrum is your fifth great-grandfather.
You descend from that white man.
ODOM: You know, we don't, none of us, none of us choose how we begin.
ODOM: Clementina didn't get to choose how she began.
ODOM: None of us gets to decide how, how we get here.
It's a lot to think about.
It's a lot.
GATES: We had one more detail to share with Leslie: a record from Barbados that brought a note of closure to this chapter of his family's story.
ODOM: "Burials solemnized in the Westbury Cemetery in the parish of St. Michael in the year 1904.
October 29th, Clementina Inniss, 78 years."
She lived a long time.
GATES: And think about this, less than one year before her burial, Clementina's grandson, your great-great-grandfather, Samuel, would jump on his ship, leave Barbados, and sail past the Statue of Liberty, and enter the United States of America in search of a better life for him, and for his little whippersnapper descendant who played Aaron Burr in "Hamilton".
GATES: It's Samuel, was just two generations removed from slavery.
ODOM: That's amazing.
GATES: What's it's been like for you to sit here across from me and learn all of these surprising stories about your ancestors?
ODOM: It opens up that, that door in your imagination.
ODOM: Um, literally and figuratively, you know, because you just, you, there's lots to imagine.
And then, it opens up a door, uh, for real places and real, real sights, real people to meet, um it is a real re-imagining of self.
GATES: We'd already traced Nathan Lane's paternal roots in Ireland, introducing him to generations of ancestors who lived in poverty, helping to illuminate his father's troubled life.
Now, turning to Nathan's mother's family, we found ourselves in happier circumstances, focusing on his maternal grandmother, Mary Donnellan.
Mary helped raise Nathan, and he and his brothers adored her for her intelligence and her warmth.
Your brother Dan described her as the smartest woman he's ever met.
Is that how you remember her?
LANE: Well, um, yeah.
I mean, yes, she was smart, and, you know, she was um, she was an extraordinary person.
She kind of took care of everyone, I mean she was that person she was there for everybody, and uh... GATES: Uh-hmm.
LANE: You know, this picture of the two of us, it brings back so many memories, yeah, I loved her, I loved her very much.
We were, we were close, very close.
GATES: Like all of Nathan's grandparents, Mary was from Ireland.
But when we began to research her childhood, we encountered something unexpected.
She'd received an education into her late teens, likely because her father owned a small farm, a level of prosperity that had eluded Nathan's paternal ancestors.
That's unusual, right?
GATES: That's right.
Your father's family, as we saw, were landless, but your mother's family was a different story.
GATES: Did anyone ever talk about this?
GATES: It's amazing.
GATES: Quite remarkable.
GATES: They owned land and sent their daughter to school.
That's really something.
GATES: When Mary was growing up, most young people in Ireland finished their education as children, and the idea that girls should be educated at all was a modern one!
So, Mary was an outlier, and, as we dug into her roots, we saw that her family's modest ascent was quite recent.
Moving back two generations, we found her grandfather, James Connor, in a land survey from 1855, living with his wife and children in a two-room farmhouse in a manner that sounds decidedly pre-modern.
As you can see, in addition to farming, James was grazing some animals, likely sheep or goats, which means his family would have had milk and cheese.
It also means that the family would probably have brought their animals into the house at night to protect against theft and for warmth in the winter.
Can you imagine, a two-room house with sheep?
LANE: Ah, the plot thickens.
The sheep and the who?
And the goats?
GATES: The sheep and the goats.
LANE: And they would cuddle to stay warm.
I didn't know that.
LANE: That they would do that, take them into their house, the animals, to avoid theft or... GATES: Yeah.
And to keep them from freezing.
LANE: And to keep them from freezing.
I'm going to show you something else.
Look at the next page.
This is a record from 1868.
Would you please read the transcribed section?
LANE: "Deaths Registered in the District of Ballinasloe in the County of Galway.
Date and Place of Death: 13th November, 1868, Ballinasloe Work house.
Name and surname: James Connor.
Age at Last Birthday: 79 years.
GATES: Nathan, your great-great-grandfather died in a workhouse.
LANE: Oh my lord!
GATES: You ever hear of workhouses?
Doesn't Scrooge mention, "are there no workhouses?"
GATES: You got it.
LANE: How awful and how did that happen?
GATES: To contemporary eyes, England's "workhouse system" seems obscene.
The "houses" were essentially factories equipped with dormitories.
Once inside, you had to wear a uniform, submit to a rigid schedule, and, if you were an able-bodied adult, perform demanding labor.
In return, you were fed and given a place to sleep.
And in Ireland, especially in the years surrounding the great famine, that was precious.
We don't know why Nathan's ancestor found himself in one of these houses, only that he never left.
LANE: You know, from the outside, you're looking at this picture, it doesn't look so bad.
LANE: It looks like a prep school in New England.
LANE: But behind those walls... GATES: Your grandmother never shared any stories about what happened to her grandfather, did she?
GATES: Well, we can't be sure of the circumstances that led him to live in the workhouse, but he had to end up there either because the family was too destitute to support him, or they had cut off contact with him for some reason.
GATES: What's it like to learn that your ancestor had to perform menial labor in what was essentially a voluntary prison just to get enough food and shelter?
LANE: Well, the notion that he lost his farm and lost what was obviously, for him, a decent life with his family and then was subjected to this, is just a great tragedy as obviously as many people were experiencing this as well.
So, it's just a horrific history.
GATES: Do you think that the trauma our ancestors suffer gets passed down to us somehow?
LANE: That's an interesting question.
Um, I'm sure in some way it does.
It is a part of you in some way you're not even aware of.
LANE: You know, maybe that's where I got my, my... strength to survive, uh whether it's the emotional trauma of a difficult childhood with you know, parents who were not doing so well, or just the trials and tribulations of show business.
LANE: And the constant ups and downs, and rejections and humiliations and so, maybe that's where I got my strength.
GATES: We'd already taken Leslie Odom's maternal ancestry back to 18th century Barbados.
Now, turning to his father's roots, we found ourselves on more familiar terrain: in the American south, trying to recover stories buried in the abyss of slavery.
We soon focused on Leslie's third great-grandfather, a man named Alex Dowling.
Alex was likely born around 1850 in Barnwell County, South Carolina, seeking to learn more we found a slave schedule from that same year for a white planter in Barnwell named "Decania Dowling."
Enslaved people are not listed by name on this schedule, but two of these hash marks represent children who would have been roughly the same age as Alex.
ODOM: "One black male, six months old; one mulatto male, six months old."
GATES: What's it like to see that?
ODOM: Well, a very different experience from what you, uh, illuminated for me on my mom's side.
ODOM: You know, I was expecting something like this.
I was expecting a little more of this.
ODOM: It's still, uh, cloudy.
ODOM: You know, and hazy is better than nothing.
ODOM: I'll tell you that.
But, uh, yeah.
This is, this is sort of more what I was expecting.
GATES: For many of my guests, this would mark the end of our search: with only anonymous hash marks to guide us, we can rarely go further.
But in Leslie's case, we got lucky.
Our researchers noticed that the planter who filed this schedule had a son named "Elijah Dowling", and that same name appears on the death certificate of Leslie's third great-grandfather Alex, as being the name of his father!
This raised a question: could Elijah Dowling, the son of a white slaveowner, in fact be Leslie's fourth great-grandfather?
There was only one way to tell for sure.
We compared Leslie's DNA to that of millions of other people in publicly-available databases, looking for matches, and trying to see how those matches might be related, a technique that eventually allowed us to establish the identity of Alex Dowling's father beyond all doubt.
You with me?
ODOM: I'm with you.
GATES: Would you please turn the page.
Would you please read the name of the man in the red box in the middle of the chart?
ODOM: "Elijah Henry Dowling."
GATES: Elijah Dowling was, in fact, Alex's biological father, which makes him your fourth great-grandfather, just as we suspected.
GATES: But the only way to prove that... ODOM: Was DNA?
GATES: Was through DNA.
GATES: Maybe you weren't as far away from Aaron Burr as you thought!
Would you please turn the page?
ODOM: Who is that?
GATES: That is your fourth great-grandfather.
That is Elijah Henry Dowling.
ODOM: Oh, really?
GATES: That is your grand-pappy.
What do you see when you look at your fourth great-grandfather?
ODOM: Uh, what do I see?
Well, I wouldn't, uh, I wouldn't know to regard him as family if I, you know, if I met him and... GATES: Mm-hmm.
ODOM: I, I have no ideas about the views that he held.
ODOM: But just by nature of the time that he lived I suspect, that his views are suspect.
Um, so I don't know.
I don't, you know.
I don't know what to make of him.
GATES: We had a little more information to help Leslie sort out his feelings about his ancestor.
Records show that Elijah was a doctor, a successful farmer, and, when the Civil War came, a very eager confederate.
He served as assistant surgeon of the 1st South Carolina volunteer regiment beginning in the early months of the war!
ODOM: Old South's defender.
GATES: How does it make you feel to learn this?
ODOM: I'm an American, you know, I'm an American, and so we, i-in the same way that our, that our country, um, is, uh, messy... GATES: Mmm-hmm ODOM: And mess, and messed up, and that, you know, and that, that, that, the history, the book of, the book of America... GATES: Yes, that's right.
ODOM: You know, it looks a lot like this, you know?
GATES: That's, it's true.
ODOM: I'm a, I'm a product of, of this country, of, um... GATES: Yeah.
ODOM: Proud immigrants.
GATES: Proud immigrants.
ODOM: And, and also of, uh, this, this part of our history too, so... GATES: You got all of it, man.
ODOM: I got all of it.
GATES: On your, on your family tree.
GATES: Now that we'd identified Alex's father, we wondered about the circumstances of his birth, we knew that his mother, Leslie's fourth great-grandmother, was a woman named Rachel, and we suspected that Rachel, too, was enslaved by the Dowling family.
We found our proof in the estate records of Decania Dowling, Alex's grandfather had set down his human property by name and dollar value.
Giving Leslie a sobering glimpse of his ancestors.
ODOM: "A list of articles appraised, belonging to the estate of D. Dowling, October 28th, 1857.
Rachel and child, $950."
GATES: What's it like to have this information?
ODOM: Knowing whatever, you know, the appraisers assigned to them, whatever couple hundred measly dollars the appraisers assigned to them is irrelevant to me.
But to honor their presence and to honor their, the fact that they lived and that they weren't, things, that they weren't objects, is, is deeply meaningful, and, and rights a wrong, you know.
So, it's not... there's not a ton that you can, that you can give back to them, but you can give them back the dignity of... you know, their humanity, and just the... Yeah, you can make them not things.
GATES: There was a grace note to this story: as we traced Leslie's ancestors forward in time, we found his third great-grandfather Alex in the 1880 census, living with his wife and four children in Bamberg, South Carolina, not far from where he was enslaved, and yet, truly, a world away.
Alex now owned a farm, and 115 acres of land!
In 1870, only about 4% of rural Black family heads in South Carolina owned any land at all.
ODOM: My goodness.
GATES: But what's it like to see this and know that your ancestor Alex was able to prosper, despite the fact that his life had begun in slavery?
ODOM: That's powerful.
ODOM: That's really powerful.
GATES: What do you think you've inherited from all these people to whom you've been introduced today.
ODOM: It is so disparate and so varied.
Um, it's hard for me in this moment to find the connections, but it's a little bit of a miracle, you know?
The, it's, it's, uh, the story of survival, and ingenuity, and, uh, creativity, and I'm sure pain.
GATES: Oh, big time.
ODOM: And, uh, luck, and favor.
And all of that.
So, I'm just happy to be able to have some specificity about the way I think about myself, and where I've come from.
GATES: The paper trail had run out for each of my guests.
ODOM: Oh, wow.
GATES: It was time to unfurl their family trees... ODOM: Wow.
LANE: Oh, my God.
GATES: Now filled with names they'd never heard before.
LANE: It's just extraordinary.
GATES: Seeing their ancestors laid out before them, stretching back centuries, allowed each to reflect on the women and men who had done so much to lay the groundwork for their success.
ODOM: To be able to name roots, to be able to trace roots is, uh, you know and remove question marks.
It's, uh, centering.
It's grounding, pardon the pun, you know?
GATES: No, it's... ODOM: It's grounding.
GATES: That's a good word for it.
ODOM: You know, what a, what a miracle we all are.
You know, that, um, these small and big decisions that people made before we got here, made us possible.
LANE: It is a little overwhelming to look at all of those people and know that you're a part of them now in a way that I never realized.
GATES: You're a part of them and they're a part of you.
And I, I, you know, I certainly feel that now.
GATES: Does it change the way you think about being an American?
It you know, this whole, this whole book, this whole series it's like, this is what this country is based on.
People coming from elsewhere.
LANE: Coming here to follow a dream to you know, to escape something, to find something.
You know, it's so much a part of this country's history.
LANE: And it's the basis of who we are.
GATES: That's the end of our journey with Nathan Lane and Leslie Odom, Jr. Join me next time when we unlock the secrets of the past for new guests on another episode of "Finding Your Roots".