Well That’s Awkward: Celebrities Whose Families Owned Slaves

February 26, 2015  |  
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You know that awkward moment when you share the last name with someone and they’re white?

It’s black history month, and sometimes digging into the past can be awkward. When these celebs went looking into their family trees, they found out that they were part one of the celebrities whose families owned slaves.

Anderson Cooper

When you remember that Anderson Cooper is a Vanderbilt — one of the richest and oldest families in American History — it’s not surprising to hear that the Vanderbilts owned plantations as well as railroads.

What is awkward? The Vanderbilts owned the plantation where Michelle Obama’s ancestor Jim Robinson was a slave.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Did Benedict Cumberbatch agree to be in 12 Years A Slave to atone for the fortune his family made from slavery?

The Cumberbatch family were such prolific slaveowners that Benedict’s family advised him not to use his real name in acting for fear he’d be the target of reparations claims.

No lawsuits have come forward just yet. But NYC Commisioner Stacey Cumberbatch did dedicate a portion of her inaugural speech to her family’s history as being owned by the famous actors’.

Paula Deen

Are you surprised to find out that Paula Deen’s ancestors owned slaves?

Paula said that she was shocked to discover her family’s slave-owning past on her episode of Who Do You Think You Are:

“I have said so many times that my family was never involved in slavery in any way. It is horrific and it is sad.”

Mitt Romney

No politician better expressed the occassional awkwardness of American history when he said,

In fact, I can relate to black people very well indeed. My ancestors once owned slaves, and it is in my lineage to work closely with the black community.


David Cameron

The Prime Minister of England’s family built much of their wealth on the free labor of their slaves. They also built their empire selling them. One historical record reveals that the Camerons once sold 202 slaves in their Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica for roughly $5 million dollars (in today’s money).

But the Cameron’s aren’t alone. Roughly 1/5th of wealth families in the UK are still directly enjoying the wealth that their slave-owning families accumulated.

Bill Paxton

Did you see this season’s premier of Who Do You Think You Are? Actor Bill Paxton was genuinely shocked to find that his ancestors were slave owners too.

Pastor Rick Warren

Pastor Rick Warren is a celebrity pastor, deliverer of the invocation at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and also a descendant of a slave-owning Alabama family.

George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush

Their ancestor Thomas Walker was a notoriously vicious slave trader who transported captive slaves from West Africa to America.

Great-great-great grandfather to H.W. Bush, Thomas Walker built his empire on the slave trade. He was the captain of, master of, or investor in at least 11 slaving voyages to West Africa between 1784 and 1792.

At least five of the Walker family households owned slaves.

Blair Underwood

On an episode of Who Do You Think You Are, Blair Underwood discovered that he’s the descendant of freed slaves who purchased their relatives to keep the family together.

Reba McEntire

Country singer Reba McEntire learned that one of her geat grandfathers owned and traded slaves, and the other was an indentured servant.

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