Henry Louis Gates Jr. to trace family lineage of Tulsa Massacre Survivors

by Ezekiel J. Walker
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Henry Louis Gates Jr., the renowned historian, author, teacher, and genealogist met with the three survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre last week and pledged to trace their family trees on his popular PBS show, Finding Your Roots.

According to the Oklahoma Eagle, Gates’ meeting with Viola Ford Fletcher, 107, Hughes Van Ellis, 101, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 107 came during a visit in Tulsa on April 8.

Gates would visit other landmarks in the city and offered insights into his impactful work in genealogy. He also stressed the importance of tracing one’s roots.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. comes with instant credibility.

Gates, a top American intellectual, is a professor of African American Studies and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, author of 21 books, recipient of 50 honorary degrees, and creator of over 15 documentary films.

Black history meets modern technology

During his private visit with Tulsa survivors and relatives of the1921 Massacre, they shared personal stories and took pictures together. All three survivors told Gates they wanted their genealogy tested. Gates recognized the significance of their DNA, simply saying, “This is history.”

At his luncheon at Hyatt Regency Tulsa, Gates told the audience that meeting the survivors, “has been one of the best days of my life.”

Genealogy explained.

According to the Oklahoma Eagle, Gates explained that his method exploring the survivors’ roots would be the same as others whose genealogy he has traced. He will first collect DNA samples from the survivors and then research their family histories. “We’ve never traced sectarians before,” he said. “At their age, the survivors are close to Reconstruction and even our collective slave experience.”

On Twitter, Gates later reflected further on his visit to Tulsa with the survivors. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he tweeted. “And the three living survivors of the Tulsa Massacre are living proof of this claim.”

Gates also said learning history is not the end goal, reparations are.“[I am] glad that Tulsa has begun, finally, to deal with this to raise the facts to the level of curriculum that the events can be taught in schools,” Gates said. “And I hope that this leads inevitably to reparations.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Education and Black History Month

Gates said he advocates using a course of study for the teaching of Black history. “We need a new curriculum. We can’t just relegate the teaching of the experiences and feelings and beliefs of people of Black descent to February,” he said, referring to Black History Month. “It’s the shortest, coldest, darkest month… the month that was leftover,” he said.

“The school curriculum – that is the only way we will fight anti-Black racism. It’s going to take a long, long time.”

Speaking of a long time, Gates has tested celebrities and cultural influencers over the past eight seasons of Finding Your Roots. While they may have household names, Gates would be hard-pressed to find a more historic bloodline than that of Tulsa’s survivors.


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