As the youngest person ever appointed as president of the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous is no stranger to fighting for what he believes in. While in college at Columbia, he was suspended for leading a campaign of civil disobedience to save the building where Malcolm X was assassinated. But on the “Roots of Freedom” episode of Finding Your Roots, we found out that Benjamin wasn’t the only one in his family to stand up against adversity.
He was already aware that his 3x great-grandfather Peter G. Morgan was a former slave who helped to rewrite the Virginia state constitution after the Civil War. But Ben didn’t know much about Peter’s life before the war or how he came to be in a position to help draft the state’s new governing document. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his team uncovered a registry of free people of color that dated back to two years before the Civil War and indicated that Peter became free in 1857 through manumission. Other documents showed that he was a shoemaker and was able to earn and save enough money to buy his own freedom. Ben vividly imagined how Peter must have counted every nail and shoe.
But buying his own freedom didn’t ensure his safety, as freed men at the time had limited rights, and if they were kidnapped, they could be sold back into slavery (think 12 Years a Slave). The most shocking thing Gates discovered was that Peter was listed on the 1860 census slave schedule — not as a slave himself, but instead as a slave owner. He owned his wife and three daughters. He bought them, but if he had freed them, they ran the chance of being sold back into slavery. They were also subject to a law that slaves that were free had to move out of the state within a year (Peter got special permission to stay). By keeping them listed as property, he was actually protecting them. But in 1864, a year before the end of the Civil War, Peter took the brave chance to free his family, writing a touching letter of emancipation. Ben appreciated the difficult struggle that must have been and said that Peter must have had a fire to be free.
On his father’s side of the family, things were less clear. Ben’s dad was disowned by his family after entering into a mixed-race marriage with Ben’s mother. Fred Jealous was a community activist from a blue-blood New England family and due to inherit a big fortune as his relatives founded Sargent and Company, a large hardware manufacturer. Because of this, Ben has little knowledge of his white relatives.
Gates found that Ben’s 6x great-grandfather Jonathan Harrington lived in Lexington in the heart of the Revolutionary War. He served as a fifer when he was only 16 and might actually have been on hand to hear the shot heard ’round the world. Additionally, Jonathan wasn’t the only soldier; Ben had eight other Patriot ancestors who fought during the war.
To get more information on Ben’s roots, Gates’ team turned to DNA testing. Ben’s ethnicity estimate came back as 80 percent European and only 18 percent sub-Saharan African. Gates joked that Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, was the “whitest black man we’ve ever tested.” They laughed, but Jealous said that despite the DNA evidence, he still proudly identifies as black, and this knowledge doesn’t change anything about that.
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