Sunday, August 28, 2016

Family Reunions: A Finding Your Roots Review

Welcome to the ROOTS section of my blog where I focus on general and personal genealogical subjects of my interest. Most of the time these blogs will be short digs where only limited research is performed. Last year I promised to join fellow bloggers covering the sensational "PBS Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr." In order to fulfill my covenant I'm using my "ROOTS" blogs to review this award-winning TV series in a creative way. Enjoy:

The fifth installment of season three's PBS Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr: Family Reunions (FYR 3:5) aired on February 16, 2016 (8pm EST), and was arguably the best episode ... ever. Join me as I discuss the reuniting genealogical stories of: (I) LL Cool J; and (II) Sean Combs.

Family Reunions. The summertime fodder when we're all under the blazing Ra gettin' stuffed, making moments with kinfolk and who's-dat-girls on alopecia-riddled tuft. Paper plates buffed with fire-grilled delights and smokescreen cups filled with igniting nutcracker spikes. Ma Dukes spilling oolong family teas, and havin' hissy fits at the kids tryin' to get dibs on Grandpa's famous ribs. Nearby banshee boys cocking stunts on dirty-red bikes, performing Tasmania Devil stunts that would make even Evil Kniviel crunk. New jacks being told to pull up their sags by OG’s imbibing down libations in brown paper bags. Apple-synched ladybugs acting all laissez faire while well-I-never Aunt Tee throwing shady side-eyes at Uncle Dee's wandering stare. Soul train', Cha-Cha vs. electric slidin', the running man and Frankie Beverly finger-snapping thanks to cousin DJ. But here's the remix:

My former residence in a Harlem Brownstone, which
 included actress Merle Dandridge and singer Kelis
(who lived across the street)
FYR 3:5's theme was more about reconciling with our biological pasts and featured two prolific Hip-Hop icons: LL Cool J and Sean "Diddy" CombsI was extremely contented to learn these luminaries would be the knighted with the FYR's proverbial Book of Life. Not only did I grow up with their music, I've been in these super-icons' presence or someone connected to them on several occasions during the course of my 
entertainment journalism career. I was Harlem brownstone neighbors with the maître d'hôtel for Diddy's (former) Manhattan restaurant, Justin's, as well as rising star Merle Dandridge
 of stage(Broadway musicals Jesus Christ Superstar, Spamalot,
Rent)and TV (Oprah Winfrey Network drama series, Greenleaf). And the mother of Diddy's son Misa Hylton-Brim lived just two blocks away from us. Further milkshake singer Kelis (ex-wife to rapper Nas) lived across the street from us, and the Shaft (2000) sequel was filmed right outside of my window. So this episode was going to hit home in many ways, and I was eager to see what Dr. Gates would uproot for these enigmatic guests.

Screen-grab of PBS Finding Your Roots set showing genetic genealogist 
CeCe Moore (inset, foreground & left), with host Henry Louis Gates Jr. 
(background, center). 

Dr. Gates
— with the help of genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, and a whip-crack research team 
discovered a surprise adoption in LL's family, and uncovered heroic stories steep in Comb's uncharted pedigree. To note here, CeCe Moore's amazing DNA detective work pushes this episode to the pinnacle of the entire series. She is surely becoming our national search angel and family-finder laureate. [I highly recommend joining Moore and Christa Stalcup's wildly successful Facebook group DNA Detectives here for adoptees and anyone in search of their biological heritage using DNA.]

(I) LL COOL J = Ladies Love Cool James
 LL Cool J @ hip-hop event, Brooklyn Museum, c. early 2000's. Photo by TL Dixon
LL Cool J is one of the greatest rappers of all times, as well as a successful film and TV star. He was born James Todd Smith on January 14, 1968, in Bay Shore, NY, to Ondrea Griffith and James Louis Smith(aka James Nunya).

As long as I can remember, all the way back in 1985 when LL burst onto the scene, he doted on his maternal grandparents Eugene Griffith and Ellen (nee Hightower)because helped raise and nurture him. When LL was four, he saw his mother and grandfather shot by his own father. His mother split from his dad, and they moved in with the Griffith's in Hollis, Queens, where he honed his craft.

LL first learns that he has free African-American ancestors in his lineage. His great-great-grandfather Nathaniel Lewis was born in Pennsylvania long after the state outlawed slavery, while his great-great-grandmother Elmira was born in Ohio, a free state. A nice start since many African-Americans don't often come across such ancestors in their research.

However I wasn't prepared for what happened when Dr. Gates honed in on LL's maternal side.

FYR 3:5's on-air genetic consultant CeCe Moore, with the help of researcher Amy Trammel, began working on LL's maternal side of the family with DNA testing, including his mother and her parents.

Soon enough CeCe Moore was able to identify Ondrea's second cousin once removed. Moore also found a biological niece(Ondrea's first cousin) of LL's grandmother Ellen Hightower. The results showed no match between his mother Ondrea and her mother's niece. Moore also tested a nephew of LL's grandfather Eugene and Ondrea didn't match him either! So now neither parent shared a biological connection with Ondrea. DNA does not lie. Or does it?

Turning to Ondrea's genetic relative matches on her DNA test, CeCe Moore got lucky. She found a genetic relative whom shared about 14% of her DNA with Ondrea. This relative's name was Joan Lewis, but she didn't have any obvious relationship with Ondrea according to Joan's family tree. Nevertheless this was certainly a close relative that could help solve this unexpected mystery. This amount of DNA (@ 14%) shared between Ondrea and Joan is usually an indication of a great-grandparent/great-grandchild; first cousins; great-uncle; aunt/great-nephew or niece, half-uncle or aunt/half-nephew or niece (see autosomal statistics here). Moore also discovered that Joan had four uncles, and they in turn had children, so FYR 3:5 tested them all.

Meanwhile Dr. Gates began searching the New York state birth index for LL's mother Ondrea Griffith, who was born on January 19, 1946. Strangely her birth certificate showed no parents! Furthermore her birth certificate was issued on May 13, 1947 more than a year after Ondrea was born. A delayed birth certificate is a sure sign of adoption. Right?

LL Cool J's mother Ondrea Griffith delayed birth certificate. Screen grab from FYR.

The delayed birth certificate raised Gates curiosity so he wanted to see if he could find Ondrea's original record (the one recorded on the day she was born). Gates honed in on her birth certificate number 2221 and searched the index again. They soon came upon a match to "Andrea Jolly" who was also born January 19, 1946!

Now Ondrea Griffith actually had questions about her mother Ellen Hightower. Growing up there were family "whispers" that her mother Ellen may not be a biological one. Ondrea's father Eugene supposedly had a child with a "mistress" while he served in the Korean War, and when Ondrea was born the mistress dropped her on the door step of LL's maternal grandparents. However Ondrea never thought much of the rumors, and never questioned her parents ... nor did she tell FYR's producers about it at first.

FYR 3:5 struck gold when Ondrea came up with an even closer DNA match from Joan's family by name of Claudia Lewis, who in turn was the daughter of a Nathaniel Christy Lewis. Ondrea and Claudia shared about 24.7% DNA, which indicates a half-sibling, grandparent, uncle/aunt or niece/nephew.

It turns out that LL's mother Ondrea Griffith and Claudia Lewis were half-sisters just as the DNA predicted! They shared the same father Nathaniel Christy Lewis, a boxer who had a relationship with the woman found on Ondrea's original birth record — Ethel Mae Jolly. Ondrea and Joan Lewis were cousins!

LL Cool J soon learned that his mother's biological family had relocated to Arizona. Of course he flew there to a meet and embrace them, including aunts, cousins and ... his mother's mother. Yes, Ondrea's mother was still alive. At the family's reuniting LL also discovered that his grandfather Nathaniel had a more famous brother — John Henry Lewis , a hall-of-fame African American boxer and world Light Heavyweight champion from 1935 to 1939. Talk about Mama Said Knock You Out!
II. SEAN COMBS = Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy, Diddy 
I ran into Sean Diddy Comb's at a Baby Phat show during NYC Fashion Week. The first pic is of Diddy himself. The bottom left pic shows (l-r) Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell,  Diddy &  Rev. Run. The bottom right pic shows
Rev. Run with me (right). TL Dixon's private photo collection.
Sean Combs, also known variously as Puff Daddy, Puffy, Diddy, and P. Diddy, is one of world's most successful hip-hop music and business moguls. He was born Sean John Combs on November 4, 1969 in Harlem, New York City, to Melvin Earl Combs, a military officer and Janice (nee Smalls), a former model and teacher's assistant.

Diddy's early years were spent in a Harlem public housing project but his family moved to neighboring Mount Vernon, New York, when he was about 7 years of age. From there Diddy boot-strapped his way to the top. After dropping out his second year in Howard University, he began his entertainment career as a talent director at Uptown Records in 1993, to later founding his own label Bad Boy Entertainment (producing such mega stars as Notorious B.I.G.)and a vast business empire, including his wildly successful namesake Sean John fashion line.

Focusing on Diddy's paternal side, we learn that his father Melvin Combs served in the US Air Force and was stationed in Yongdugpo, Korea (it was one country then), during the beginning of the Cold War. Melvin and his unit was charged with trucking ammunition and other supplies. The courageous efforts of Melvin and his troop-mates didn't go unnoticed. They were recipients of a good conduct medal; Air Force Outstanding Unit Award. Melvin served seven months in the Marine Corps and four years in the US Air Force. It made Diddy feel proud to hear empowering stories about his African-American ancestors. This was a welcoming change from the stories usually perpetuated about his father's connections to legendary Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas.

Continuing on Diddy's paternal lineage, Dr. Gates was able to trace his pedigree to his African-American 3rd-great-grandfather Robert Allsup. Diddy's 3rd-great-grandfather born in Maryland in 1849, a year Dr. Gates pointed out for African-Americans that historically meant being enslaved. However scrutinizing the 1850 US census for Baltimore, Gates made a tantalizing discovery:

Robert Allsup was listed in plain sight. Since enslaved Africans were only recorded by age and sex in federal census slave records prior to 1870, this discovery meant Diddy's 3rd-great-grandfather was free. Thus, Dr. Gates was able to advance Diddy's Allsup line to Robert's parents Thomas Allsup (born c. 1811 in Maryland) and his wife Nancy (born 1818 in Maryland), Sean's 4th-great-grandparents. And they were also free!

FYR 3:5 excels here again by providing historical context to their research. Dr. Gates explains that before emancipation over 90% of Africans in America were enslaved. Still Maryland was a place where a significant number of slave owners freed their slaves either because it was becoming unprofitable or for moral reasons, or both. According to Dr. Gates, about 75,000 of "free people color" were living in 19th-century Maryland, the most of any state at that time. As a result white people were "terrified" and passed a series of oppressive laws.
Newspaper ad showing  Diddy's free 3rd-great-grandfather erroneously being
accused of being a runway slave.  FYR screen-grab.
This also means African-American with a free status were constantly under threat of becoming 12-Years-A-Slave. Indeed Diddy's 3rd-great-grandfather Robert Allsup was accused of being a runaway slave and thrown into jail. He was eventually released and afterward joined the US Civil War where he fought for the Union in the Battle of the CraterRobert survived and went home to start his family.

I found Diddy's reaction striking when he learned of his free ancestors and how they were constantly under threat by a society that felt all African-Americans should be enslaved. Diddy actually felt conflicted that not all of his free forebears were slaves.

Says Diddy, "I can't imagine as I sit here and um, I think about the things that I had to go through to get the point that I am now. It's nothing in comparison. You know, and uh, things that I felt were obstacles could no way measure up to what it took to have this dream become a reality." Not surprisingly Dr. Gates found enslaved ancestors on Diddy's maternal side.

FYR 3:5 in this instance reunited Diddy with his past ancestors. And it seems Can't Nobody Hold Me Down has been an epigenetic theme in Diddy's bloodline.

The (W)rap-Up

On FYR 3:5 we watched Queens-born LL Cool L discover an adoption surprise in his family, while Harlem-native Sean "Diddy Combs has a genealogical pedigree that includes free African ancestors. In each instance they were reunited with their roots — LL Cool J with his biological family and Diddy his ancestors of the past. Dr. Gates and CeCe Mooore's masterful use of traditional genealogy hunting, DNA analysis and ultimately reuniting long lost family created the total FYR experience.
There was a fair amount of DNA discussion in this episode but only for LL Cool J. Since I'm a big fan of ethnicity admixture estimates I would've like to see what they were made of. Nevertheless a non-issue compared to each celebrity's openness to exploring their personal genetic ancestry stories with the world.

Clearly LL Cool J's adoption story overshadowed everything else on the show. To this extent it was was not clear if his mother Ondrea connected with her biological mother, but it leaves one to wonder if there were uneasy feelings. LL Cool J's [adoptive] grandparents actually legally adopted his mother, but they never made it known to either of them.

Yet, this FYR episode was like a high-profile de facto US Supreme Court case in favor of all adoptees. Let me explain:

In my family there is an old saying that "blood is thicker than water, but shit is thicker than that!"
Many adoptees often grow up being treated as if they are branded with a scarlet letter A on their chests. Beyond their adoptive parents and siblings, adoptees often feel like outsiders by their other family members, who have no idea how they're treating a relative who is supposed to be thought of as blood kin. It's depressing to always have to "acknowledge" being adopted, or be subjected to family discrimination. 

In LL's mother situation she did not know about her adoption so she may have had conflicting feelings about meeting her biological parent (i.e. abandonment or being forced to choose between adoptive and birth parents). On the other hand, her biological mother may not have wanted contact with her because of guilt or shame. Whatever the circumstances I unequivocally believe adoptees have a birth right to know about their genetic ancestry and health history, even in instances where one of the parties wishes no contact (which should be respected). This also exemplifies the notion of "it takes a village" because family bonds exceed blood ties and conventional definitions of it.

As a result FYR 3:5 exposed a major sub-theme: forgiveness. That is, in any situation with reuniting with family — presuming there was a prior separation, estrangement or some other colorful disconnect — forgiveness is the key to moving forward with a successful reunification and ongoing relationship. In this instance LL's mother was able to forgive her adoptive parents for legally adopting her, but again we don't know if this extended to her biological mother.

Oprah Winfrey once said of her own (no pun intended) newly discovered biological sister's strained relationship with their mother: "Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could’ve been any different. So you don’t hold on to wishing that you’d had a different kind of brother, a different kind of mother, a different kind of family. You let that go and you move forward with the grace that God has given you. From this day on, forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could’ve been any different."

In this regard, LL Cool J elevates from the G.O.A.T to a Saint and Diddy is definitely a Bad Boy forever. ... *Drops Mic.


  1. Great article on the most epic episodes of Finding Your Roots. You captured the essence of the show perfectly

  2. Wow! That was a great recap, or shall I say "remix". I like your writing style. Clearly, you took advantage of your Princeton education. With reference to the LL Cool J event, I'm in a similar situation in that I recently discovered (via DNA testing) that my aunt/1st cousin (her daughter) aren't my biological kin - thus, my aunt is not my mother's biological sister! Even more recently, another cousin (we discovered) was not a match to her brother/nephew. We're still working through the latter. A lot of pain followed both revelations. We need a CeCe on hand.

    In any event, this was a great blog. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks SGL. And I appreciate you for sharing your story. It will work itself out but sometimes you have to work through shock...To that extent blessings and great karma unto you.

  3. I totally enjoyed the show and your wrap up was spot on. I enjoyed reading it.

  4. Hi TL
    I enjoyed reading your article and following you on 23andme. Chasing my family story passed down about a ggg granduncle,the bare-knuckle boxer Thomas the Moor, promoted my granddaughter to gift me a 23andme testing kit. This experience, revelations, finding family and documenting family histories has been surreal. Much respect.

  5. Just now seeing this TL. Great recap. This is still my favorite episode, both because of the dramatic stories of the two artists and because it helped me find a cousin. LL's other cousin shown on the episode, Thaddeus, I found in the middle of my GEDmatch list. I contacted him on a hunch and asked if he was the person in the episode and he confirmed it. Together we dug back into our shared Lucas (Ohio) line and found our common roots. That was my first real successful trace of a DNA relative whose link to me was completely unknown up to that point. Thanks for the reminder, and thanks for all your work!