Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Oprah's Roots

I just finished watching the PBS show about Oprah Winfrey's roots. I thought it was exceptionally well done as a story - telling about her life, her parents, and then getting into the real genealogy search for the earlier generations. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. narrated the show and was the teller of "genealogy news" to Oprah.

Her Winfrey line included men who owned land after the Civil War in Mississippi, founded schools for Negroes in the early 1900's, and took part in civil rights activities in the 1960's. Oprah felt a pride in these accomplishments, and rightly so.

Some of the research was done by professional researchers like genealogists Tony Burroughs and Jane Ailes, and historian John Thornton. They showed census records, land mortgages, town records, marriage records and the like to determine relationships. This was the most interesting part of the show for me.

As a genealogist, I wish that they had shown more research than the two family lines back into the 1800's, rather than tell her own life story. The Winfrey line was very well documented and shows what can be done to research back to 1870, and, with some luck, to find a probable slave master in the 1850 and 1860 census. They also found a Lee slave master in the same time period, but they didn't show the details of the ancestry.

The last 15 minutes of the show was about DNA research. They postulated that her matrilineal ancestor came from western Africa (Senegal down to Liberia) or from Angola, based on the known slave trade into South Carolina. Using Oprah's mitochondrial DNA (from the matrilineal line), they found a match with people in Liberia, and Oprah immediately felt a connection to that area.

I'm wondering why they didn't tell us about her father's ancestry. Her father is still alive, and could have provided a DNA sample to allow a similar trace on her patrilineal line. Perhaps there were no close matches, or the matches were inconclusive. Maybe it was simply that they didn't have enough time - one story was told, Oprah is Liberian, that's enough, don't confuse everybody else.

While Oprah thinks that she is Liberian based on the DNA test, the truth is that Liberia represents only one known ancestor out of 64 (6th generation, born perhaps around 1800) or 128 (7th generation, born perhaps around 1770) possible immigrant ancestors (depending on when her slave ancestors came to America). Many more may be Liberian, but some may come from other areas of Africa. Of course, those lines can't be traced unless you can find patrilineal or matrilineal lines through known cousins or other relatives.

Did you see the show? What were your thoughts?

UPDATE: Read Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak's review of the companion book at There are more details in the book, of course. I had not read Megan's review before I watched the show.


Janice said...

I too watched the show with great interest. You have to remember that unless you are a fanatical... err dedicated genealogist, you aren't going to be as interested in the documents as you are the background music, and a scene of Oprah with a tear in her eye. The presentation was definitely toward the general public.

It was a lovely show, I just wish they had filmed a 2nd version, just for us die-hard researchers.


Anonymous said...

which of her ancestor was born in liberia