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Skip Gates ...Discovering His Roots

I have been obsessed with my family tree since I was a boy. My grandfather, Edward Gates, died in 1960, when I was 10. After his burial at Rose Hill Cemetery in Cumberland, Md. — Gateses have been buried there since 1888 — my father showed me my grandfather’s scrapbooks. There, buried in those yellowing pages of newsprint, was an obituary, the obituary, to my astonishment, of our matriarch, a midwife and former slave named Jane Gates. “An estimable colored woman,” the obituary said.

I wanted to know how I got here from there, from the mysterious and shadowy preserve of slavery in the depths of the black past, to my life as a 10-year-old Negro boy living blissfully in a stable, loving family in Piedmont, W.Va., circa 1960, in the middle of the civil rights movement.

I peppered my father with questions about the names and dates of my ancestors, both black and white, and dutifully recorded the details in a notebook. I wanted to see my white ancestors’ coat of arms. Eventually, I even allowed myself to dream of discovering which tribe we had come from in Africa.

More recently, in part to find my own roots, I started work on a documentary series on genetics and black genealogy. I especially wanted to find my white patriarch, the father of Jane Gates’s children. The genealogical research into my family tree uncovered, to my great wonder, three of my fourth great-grandfathers on my mother’s side: Isaac Clifford, Joe Bruce and John Redman.

All were black and born in the middle of the 18th century; two gained freedom by the beginning of the Revolutionary War. All three lived in the vicinity of Williamsport, a tiny town in the Potomac Valley in the Allegheny Mountains, in what is now West Virginia.

I am descended from these men through my maternal grandmother, Marguerite Howard, whom we affectionately called “Big Mom.” When Jane Ailes, a genealogist, revealed these discoveries to me, I could scarcely keep my composure. In searching for a white ancestor, I had found — improbably — a black patriot instead.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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