AS HOST OF THE PBS SERIES Finding Your Roots, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. traces the family trees of today’s best-known cultural figures. But the man who has become the nation’s foremost genealogist—as well as its conscience, through his work exploring the impact of slavery on America—might not have pursued his passion for the past if it weren’t for a very special royal blue 1969 Ford Mustang.
“I drove that car 424 miles from my home in Piedmont, W. Va. all the way to Yale,” recalls Gates, 63, who majored in history and later became a professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard.
The second season of Finding Your Roots shows Gates and his team of geneticists and genealogists digging deep into the personal histories of a star-studded group of accomplished musicians, athletes, journalists and more. Each journey begins by following birth certificates, tax documents and other written records, which are pasted together with family photos into a personalized scrapbook the show calls “The Book of Life.” “When the paper trail runs out, we analyze DNA to find out about their distant relatives and connections to other people,” Gates explains.
According to Gates, the success of Finding Your Roots, which had 25 million viewers during its first season, can be attributed to how it showcases “the fundamental unity of the human community.”
“No matter how different we appear, we’re all cousins,” he says. “The only question is how far back that relationship goes.”
Every episode will also feature a 30-second spot that looks back at the history of Henry Ford and his visionary, family-owned company. For Gates, one of Ford’s lasting contributions was his willingness to pay a fair wage to the black workers in his factories, which drew Southern sharecroppers to Detroit as part of the early 20th century’s Great Migration.
“I’ve been a Ford fan for a long time,” Gates says. “It’s an honor that Ford is one of our sponsors for the series. Nothing could please me more.”