As the child of famed high-society staple Gloria Vanderbilt, Anderson Cooper could easily open any history book about New York City and find details about relatives on his maternal line. But his famous jeans-designing mother was only partially responsible for Anderson’s genes. Though he’s typically the one digging deep into stories, he turned the reins over to Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his team of genealogists to get some backstory on his father, Wyatt Cooper’s, side of the family on the “Our American Storytellers” episode of Finding Your Roots.
Growing up in Manhattan Anderson could hardly escape his maternal family heritage. There’s even a giant statue of his 3x great-grandfather shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt standing in front of Grand Central Terminal. While the Vanderbilts have a rags-to-riches tale that can be traced back to Jan Aertsen Vanderbilt who arrived in America in the 17th century from the Netherlands, Anderson feels more kinship with the Southern roots on his father’s side.
Aside from his father’s love of Mississippi and knowledge that his father grew up poor in a small shack, Anderson knew little about his Cooper lineage. Wyatt Cooper didn’t have a chance to share much, since he died of a heart attack when Anderson was only 10. Gates and his team quickly uncovered a photograph of Anderson’s great-grandfather William Preston Cooper. His family was made up of settlers who migrated south to seek their fortune growing cotton. Most never owned much land or came close to hitting it rich and instead worked small farms or as laborers.
Further research found Civil War records on the Cooper line, including Robert Fletcher Campbell (Anderson’s great-great-grandfather), who was one of many family members who volunteered to fight for the Confederate Army even though they didn’t own any slaves. But there was one relative on the Cooper line who did actually own slaves. Burwell Boykin, Anderson’s 4x great-grandfather, was the most successful farmer in the family, but he also owned 12 people. Anderson had always presumed his family would have been too poor to own slaves. Another sad fact was that the record didn’t include the names of most of the slaves; most were listed only by age and sex.
While wondering what kind of man Burwell was, Anderson was shown a shocking bit of information from the 1860 U.S. Census Mortality Schedule: Burwell Boykin’s cause of death is listed as “Killed By Negro.” Boykin’s slaves were so unhappy with their treatment that one rebelled and beat him to death. Anderson figured that Boykin probably deserved it but wished that he could know more about the man who murdered Boykin (aside from the fact that he was hanged without a trial) and what happened to the other 11 people after Boykin’s death.
Details dried up at this point for Gates and his team, though given Anderson Cooper’s love of storytelling, we can’t help but wonder if he’ll keep investigating long after this episode airs.
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