Legal scholar Anita Hill and activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham take journeys through their family trees on the acclaimed PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” which returned for its eighth season in January.
Hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., a historian and Harvard University professor, the show takes notable people on a quest to learn more about their ancestry.
In the season's second episode, Hill learns of her great-great-grandfather, who resided in Bowie County, Texas, in 1850. At the time, Bowie County was one of only three known counties — including Utah County, Utah, and Scott County, Tennessee — that documented the names and information of its enslaved residents.
“This is like winning the lottery here,” Hill said on the show.
Before emancipation, enslaved people were not documented by name in the U.S. census, making it difficult for genealogists and family record-keepers to find enslaved Black ancestors in the country before the 1860s. They were typically listed without their names but instead by age and gender as property in county documents.
As a lawyer and educator, Hill made history as the first tenured Black professor at the University of Oklahoma in 1989. She also became the symbol for women after her testimony during the nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 regarding workplace sexual harassment allegations. She is currently a professor of social policy, law and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University.
Packnett Cunningham, whose genealogy was also explored in the episode, is a civil rights activist and writer and a previous member of former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. She appeared on the 2017 cover of Essence magazine and was honored at the 2018 BET awards for her activism efforts, and she is an MSNBC contributor.
In her sit-down with Gates, she experienced a revelation regarding the mysteries of one of her relatives.
“Oh, my gosh,” Packnett Cunningham said on the verge of tears. “So you’ve found my grandfather.”
During the episode, she learned her grandfather may have met Packnett Cunningham’s grandmother while he visited one of her siblings — solving the mystery of how her father was conceived.
“This wasn’t even a figment of my imagination,” Packnett Cunningham told Gates. “It’s not as though there was a story there, and there were holes to fill in. There was no story because I did not know anything about my grandfather.”
Other individuals to be featured this season include actor Terry Crews, actor and director Regina King and the late fashion journalist André Leon Talley, among others. New episodes of "Finding Your Roots" air Tuesdays on PBS.