Henry Louis Gates Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) on July 10 at the society’s 116th annual convention, held in Addison, Texas.
Gates learned of the Revolutionary War veteran in his lineage while filming his PBS documentary, “African American Lives,” a program that used innovations in DNA research and old-fashioned genealogical sleuthing to trace the ancestry of eight notable African Americans: entertainers Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, and Whoopi Goldberg; astronaut Mae Jemison; neurosurgeon Ben Carson; educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; and Bishop T.D. Jakes.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Gates said of the revelation of the identity of his fifth great-grandfather. “It was my hope that African Americans, and children in particular, would be inspired by this series to embrace both science and history as paths to their learning about both their African roots and their American roots.”
Gates is also undertaking a joint project with SAR to identify other descendants of the approximately 5,000 African Americans who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
The effort is being funded by a grant from Joseph W. Dooley, the head of the lineage society’s membership committee, and by the Du Bois Institute. Jane Ailes of Research Consultants, a genealogical consulting firm in Virginia, will undertake a survey of the 80,000 pension applications of Revolutionary War veterans and compare these names to federal census records from 1790 to 1850, to ascertain the race of each applicant. Once the research is complete, the Du Bois Institute and SAR will advertise for descendants of these individuals and invite them to apply for membership in the society or in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
About the partnership between SAR and the Du Bois Institute, and the goal of increasing African-American membership in the two lineage societies, Dooley said, “Black men who love their country and their family seek to honor both by joining the SAR, just as their white fellow Americans have been doing for more than a century.”
The collaboration of the Du Bois Institute and SAR has the potential to alter, perhaps dramatically, the composition of the society, which currently counts fewer than 30 African Americans among its 26,000 members. Historians commonly estimate the number of African Americans and other nonwhites who served in the Revolutionary War as 5,000, but the actual number is unknown. In recent years both SAR and DAR have begun to open their rolls to African Americans who meet the strict membership guidelines, under which the military service of the ancestor has to be documented, as does the genealogical relationship of the applicant to that individual.
A PBS film crew also recorded Gates’ address at the SAR induction ceremony for the upcoming sequel of “African American Lives.” Several members of his family are also applying to or awaiting approval from the societies. During filming of “African American Lives,” Gates first discovered that his mother’s line descended from John Redman, a free mulatto who enlisted in a Virginia regiment in 1778. Coincidentally, Gates’ paternal grandmother was a Redman as well.