When billionaire media producer Oprah Winfrey took a DNA test for the PBS show African American Lives a few years back, she learned that her DNA had three exact matches — with the Kpelle people, who lived in western Africa in what’s now Liberia; the Bamileke people in Cameroon; and a Bantu-speaking tribe in Zambia.
Like many African Americans whose genealogy is difficult to trace beyond slavery, Oprah knew little about her ancestry. She was born in Mississippi and on a previous African American Lives program, had learned that an ancestor started a school for black children after the Civil War (hearing this brought her to tears).
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard professor and current host of Finding Your Roots, has written about why Oprah’s DNA shows such diversity within Africa. In his book Finding Oprah’s Roots: Finding Yours, he points out that over the millennia of Africa’s history, tribes migrated across the continent or were taken captive in wars; in other words, there was a lot of movement, as happens with all peoples.
Oprah’s links to Zambia are most likely part of the Bantu migrations, he says, when a group of Bantu-speaking Africans long ago migrated out of southern Cameroon and peopled huge sections of central and southern Africa.
Combining information from Oprah’s DNA matches (both in Liberia and among the Gullah people off the coast of South Carolina) with what’s known about the history of American slavery suggests that the first slave in her ancestry was likely a woman from West Africa. Between 1801 and 1810, about 41,000 slaves came into the U.S. through the port at Charleston, South Carolina, many of them from West Africa.
Before taking the DNA test, Oprah said she didn’t believe she had any European or Native American ancestors. Her test results showed her to be correct about the European ancestry (she had 0 percent), but wrong about the Native American part (8 percent). She also learned she was 3 percent East Asian.
“I’ve got to say, when it happened to me, it was absolutely empowering to know the journey of my entire family,” Oprah said.
DNA testing has taken some amazing leaps forward since Oprah took her test. Now, the most popular tests for family history are autosomal tests, like AncestryDNA, which are tools both women and men can use to compare their DNA with others around the world and uncover tantalizing clues about the people who came before them and their journeys. This information, together with historical data found at Ancestry.com, can be a powerful tool to help break through difficult genealogical “brick walls.”