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Tamera Mowry-Housley gets teary-eyed learning about enslaved ancestors

“You want to protect them,” the actor said while appearing on the latest episode of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS.
Tamera Mowry-Housley.
Tamera Mowry-Housley.Paul Archuleta / Getty Images file
/ Source: TODAY

Tamera Mowry-Housley hears some heavy news about one of her ancestors in the latest episode of “Finding Your Roots.”

When she entered the show, Mowry-Housley knew little of her family tree, beyond the fact that she was mixed race, with a mother from the Bahamas and a father of European descent. “We’re going to see what you are,” host Henry Louis Gates Jr. tells her on the show.

While tracing her mother’s roots in the Bahamas, the actor learns about a difficult chapter in her family’s history. Born in 1825, Mowry-Housley’s ancestor Margaret Rolle was an enslaved field laborer in a country “driven by slavery,” according to the show.

Mowry-Housley, who has two young children of her own, was saddened to hear that her ancestor, at 9, had been listed as a slave on an official document.

“You want to protect them, you want them to keep that innocence. But for Margaret, that did not exist,” she tells the show’s host.

Slavery was abolished throughout the British empire when Margaret Rolle was 9. But for a period of four years, formerly enslaved people were required to work for their former owners with no pay. So Rolle wasn’t fully free until she was around 13 years old, according to Gates.

“Wow,” the 44-year-old says, taking a deep breath.

Gates then asks her, “What do you think Margaret would’ve made of you?”

Mowry-Housley initially beams after hearing the question but her expression quickly turns to one of sadness as she holds back tears.

“She’d be proud,” she says.

“Oh, no question, she would be proud,” Gates says.

“But you just feel (sad that) she had to go through that as a child,” the actor adds. “I wonder what she went through to escape her current situation.”

The mother of two then ponders how her ancestor coped with her situation and how she reacted when she was eventually free.

“Then, to finally be free ... (I wonder) what that felt like, that first breath,” she says.

Mowry-Housley also discovers her family’s ties to a major historical event. Several members of Margaret Rolle’s family were likely also owned by a British baron named John Rolle. In 1830, enslaved people on John Rolle’s estate rose up in a historical event called Pompey’s Revolt.

Although they didn’t gain their freedom, they did gain several concessions and a place in history, “providing inspiration and hope for generations,” Gates says.

“That’s beautiful,” she says in response.

At this point, Gates is curious to know if these discoveries change the way Mowry-Housley sees herself.

“You know when you always say, ‘I got it from my mama?’ Well, I definitely see that line of strength picking up and carrying on. That’s what I get out of all of this,” she says.

While learning about her family tree, the actor hears that one of her ancestors, William Brewster, also traveled to America on the Mayflower.

“I’m done!” she says jokingly.

This prompts Mowry-Housley to reflect on her mixed heritage.

“This is what’s crazy about being biracial. I have blood that started it and then I have blood that was enslaved by it,” she says.