April 13, 2016

Richmond-area native – and Seattle Seahawks superstar – Russell Wilson, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian and host of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots,” delivered a fascinating night at The Richmond Forum in late March. Thrilled to be in the audience, I was captivated listening to Gates unfold generations of family history for Wilson. Wilson’s ancestry was broad – everything from an English King to slaves, free blacks and whites.

True History

Gates’ research uncovered remarkable and emotional stories, including ancestors who, along with livestock, were listed as property with a declared value of $1,000. And the story of Charity Southgate, Wilson’s paternal great-great-great-great-grandmother. Southgate was a slave who had been born to a white woman and therefore was entitled to her freedom. She battled for decades to secure her freedom, and that of her children, and eventually purchased her husband’s freedom.

Gates cautioned the audience and Wilson though – he noted that oral histories are often not very complete. For example, Dr. Gates shared that African Americans, and especially those with high cheekbones and straighter hair, are told they have Native American blood. In fact, Wilson’s DNA shows he has none and Gates said the same is true of almost all African Americans. Another missing piece was regarding a relative of Wilson’s who family members described as serving as an orderly to an officer in the Confederate Army. In fact, Gates’ research team discovered this ancestor served in the USCT (United States Colored Troops) of the Union Army in the Civil War.

The Whole Story

So, the inaccuracies clearly exist, but I wonder if perhaps what is documented is not the only truth or the whole story. Lore, passed along from person to person and retold each time it is shared, reflects the truth of everyone connected to the story – it’s their truth, their perception of reality. The whole story then is the combination of what is documented as accurate along with the insight, emotion and reaction of each person along the way.

Our Human Connection

Wilson faced great candor about his past – some of it documented and some of it as lore – and he does not want it to define him.

“I always want to pay homage to the past and focus on the present.”

Throughout the evening, Wilson was emotional, proud and full of admiration for his ancestors. He welcomed the unknown as a part of his new truth, and reminded us all how to do the same.

“Some of our ancestors may have grown up as slaves. Some may have been slave owners. We forget we’re all human… What it all goes back to is really loving people, because you’re probably connected.”

Indeed we are.