We all know slavery has considerably limited African Americans’ ability to trace their roots so whenever someone is able to uncover details of their ancestry as far back as Wanda Sykes has, it’s pretty exciting.
As part of a new PBS series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard professor, along with historian Ira Berlin, a professor at the University of Maryland, were able to trace Wanda’s roots back to her paternal ninth great-grandmother, Elizabeth Banks. Elizabeth was an indentured servant who, on June 20, 1683, was given 39 lashes on her bare back and an extension of her servitude as punishment for “fornication & Bastardy with a negroe slave,” according to a York County, VA, court document.
“This is an extraordinary case and the only such case that I know of in which it is possible to trace a black family rooted in freedom from the late 17th century to the present,”professor Berlin told the New York Times.
Mary Banks, Elizabeth’s biracial child, was born around 1683 and inherited her mother’s free status, although she was also indentured. She appeared to have four children and the family continued to grow as the Banks’ descendants married other free people of color. Several generations of Sykes’ have remained in the Virginia area since Elizabeth arrived, most likely from Scotland, and professor Berlin says her story changes the images we typically have of the lives of the first Africans in the New World from popular depictions of plantation life to real communities. According to Paul Heinegg, a respected genealogist and historian, more than 1,000 mixed-race children were born to white women in colonial Virginia and Maryland, but their existence has been erased from oral and written history, since they lack marriage records, wills, and property.
Regardless, professor Gates says, “The bottom line is that Wanda Sykes has the longest continuously documented family tree of any African-American we have ever researched.”
Wanda’s pretty excited about that too, although she said discoveries that some of her ancestors owned slaves and that she couldn’t trace some of her other familial roots back as far were disappointing.
“I’m just grateful I do have a history,” she said. “It’s bittersweet. I was not able to trace the other three grandparents, and that’s huge.
“It shows that we’re still paying for the history of this country, basically. It’s just incredible to go back and see that you did not matter.”
Wanda’s family segment will appear on the new PBS series in May, but the show will debut this coming Sunday. Other figures whose roots will be uncovered include Barbara Walters, Harry Connick Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Margaret Cho, Kevin Bacon, Georgia Representative John Lewis, Branford Marsalis, Robert Downey Jr. and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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