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Meet the face and force behind the recent PBS series “Finding Your Roots”, Henry Louis Gates Jr.. This distinguished Harvard scholar’s deepest passion is introducing people to their ancestors.
5 Questions with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
1. Where does your nickname Skip come from?
My momma called me Skippy from the time I was born. She loved nicknames (my brother Paul Edward is Rocky). The whole world calls me Skip. I love my mother, and I love my nickname.
2. You’ve been known to sing on the set of “Finding Your Roots.” What do you sing?
As a youth, I sang in the Walden Methodist Church choir in Piedmont, WV. [Today] I’m an R&B man. I listen to Soul Town [on Sirius Satellite Radio] with music from the ’60s. It makes me think of all those girls I was trying to get to go on a date with me, and they never did.
3. What’s a key moment in your genealogical journey?
The day we buried my father’s father, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, was July 3, 1960. I stood in front of his casket holding my father’s hand and looked at how astonishingly white my grandfather was. I thought he looked ridiculous and I was going to laugh. Then I heard a noise. My father was weeping. [Later, he] took us back to the Gates family home and showed us an obituary of Jane Gates, an “estimable colored woman.” He said, “I never want you to forget this woman. She is your oldest ancestor.” Before I went to bed I looked up the word estimable. The next day I asked my father for a composition notebook and I started to record our family history. I was 9 years old.
4. Now that you know you have Irish heritage, how do you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?
It’s impossible to be in Boston and not be influenced by Irish culture. But I don’t drink green beer or anything. I do have a very warm connection to Ireland. [My hometown of] Piedmont was predominantly Irish and Italian.
5. If you could claim any ancestor, who would it be?
We know [from DNA testing] that Jane Gates’ children were fathered by an Irishman. I’m in pursuit of him 24 hours a day. He’s my great-grandfather. I want nothing more than to find his identity and travel to Europe and claim his people for my own.
From the July-August 2012 Family Tree Magazine.