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13 Famous Black Americans Who Learned The Stories Of Their Slave Ancestors

The majority of black Americans can trace their history to slavery. These are just a few of the stories from this disgraceful period in American history.

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1. Angela Bassett

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Angela Bassett's ancestors, Henry and Emily Stokes, were born into slavery in 1820s Georgia and lived through the Civil War. During an appearance on Finding Your Roots, Bassett learned that their master had been the first man in his county to volunteer for the Confederate Army.

A document reading, "I, Henry Stokes, colored, do solemnly swear in the presence of Almighty God, that I am a citizen of Georgia" and marked by Stokes indicates that he registered to vote soon after being freed. Bassett remarked, "It is astounding to see people who were considered three-fifths of a human being, to find them. And no, they are five-fifths. One whole. A human being."

2. Nas

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"They paid $830 for my great-great-great-grandma? I got more than that in my pocket right now," Nas noted as he looked at a receipt for the sale of his ancestor, Pocahontas Little, who was 15 years old. Nas' appearance on We Come From People revealed that his ancestors' owners kept detailed records, giving Nas a heartbreaking look into the lives of his ancestors, such as the amount of cotton they picked each day. When Nas learned that the house where his ancestors were enslaved burned down and is now just a forest, he noted, "I'm just thinking about buying that land."

3. Oprah Winfrey

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When Oprah was presented with the documents listing her maternal great-great-grandparents Grace and John Lee as property, she noted, "It's one of the reasons I work so hard. I feel like I have not even the right to be tired because I know I come from this." On the Winfrey side, Oprah traced her roots to Constantine and Violet, who were born in 1836 and 1839, respectively. Though the census where Constantine first appears after emancipation reveals that he cannot read or write at age 35, the following census noted that he could do both, suggesting he learned to do so between his time working on a farm and raising a family.

In 1876, Constantine went to a white man named John Watson and said he'd pick 10 bales of cotton, or 5,000 pounds, over the course of a year in exchange for 80 acres of land. Constantine completed the Herculean task and was deeded the land. In 1906 when whites were threatening to tear down the school for black children, Constantine had it relocated to his property so that the children there could continue their education.

4. Morgan Freeman

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In the 1930s and 1940s, The Federal Writers' Project sent workers into the South to interview former slaves. Morgan Freeman's ancestor Cindy Anderson of Charleston, Mississippi, was interviewed for the program and revealed that her parents had been owned by a man named Herbert Cain. Though Cain owned the two since they were young children, he went on to sell Cindy's father years later when she was a child. "Not even treated as well as a mule," Freeman said of the buying and selling of his ancestors on the program African American Lives: We Come From People.

5. Michelle Obama

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In 2009, The New York Times and genealogist Megan Smolenyak traced first lady Michelle Obama's ancestry to her great-great-great-grandmother, an enslaved girl named Melvinia. Upon the death of her owner, she was sold for $475 at the age of 8 and sent to a household where she would become impregnated by a white man around the age of 15.

After emancipation, Melvinia continued to labor near the home where she was enslaved until her thirties or forties, when she moved away to reunite with former slaves from her original estate. Her death certificate in 1938 has "don't know" written in the space for her parents' names by a relative, indicating it is possible she never knew herself.

6. John Legend

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Legend is a descendant of Peyton Polly, whose owner died in 1847. Upon his death, Polly and his fellow slaves were granted their freedom and given land and money to start their new lives. "I think he grew to love them probably, that he saw them as family," Legend said of Polly's owner in his appearance on Finding Your Roots. Polly's eight children were enslaved all across Kentucky and he refused to leave the state without them, so he and his brother bought them all in 1849 and moved to the free state of Ohio.

But in June 1850, a group of white men broke into their home, shot Polly, and kidnapped all eight children. The men took them across the Ohio River back to slavery, where they were sold to Virginia and Kentucky owners. Polly and his family relentlessly pursued justice, and the resulting crisis went all the way to the governments and courts of Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. The Kentucky courts released the four children enslaved there illegally, but Virginia refused to acknowledge the legal status of the other four children. They were held in bondage for over a decade until emancipation freed them and they were able to unite with their family.

7. Chris Rock

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When Chris Rock appeared on African American Lives 2, he learned that his great-great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, went from slavery to serving in the U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army. Tingman would rise to the rank of corporal and go on to own 65.5 acres of land.

"If I had known this, there's a good chance I wouldn't be a comedian. If I hadn't lucked into a comedy club at age 20 on a whim, I assumed I would pick up things for white people for the rest of my life. If I'd have known this, it would have taken away the inevitability that I was gonna be nothing," Rock told host Henry Louis Gates Jr. Rock later appeared on Oprah and said, "It's weird how you don't realize what low expectations you have for yourself until somebody shows you what your people have actually accomplished."

8. Spike Lee

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Director Spike Lee had heard his grandmother mention a "crazy uncle" named Mars, prompting Lee to pursue his ancestral roots to Mars on Who Do You Think You Are? He learned that his great-grandmother Lucinda Jackson was married to Mars, who went on to be a property owner after slavery ended. "The red clay on my hands is the same dirt Mars worked to make a life for himself and his family after the Civil War. … He set the bar high early to go from a slave to a land owner! Now I know where my family gets that entrepreneurial spirit," Lee said as he dug his hands into the soil on Mars' land.

The trail back through Lucinda's family brought Lee to her father, a man named Wilson, a slave who worked in a pistol factory for the Confederacy. Lee noted the irony of his ancestors' situation of being forced to build the weapons meant to kill the people coming to liberate slaves.

9. Denzel Washington

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Denzel Washington's great-great-grandfather John Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1812 and therefore lived in slavery for over 50 years, according to sources at Ancestry.com. Because slaves were not listed as citizens but as property, John Washington does not appear in any records until 1870 in census records that state he was married to a woman named Phoebe with whom he had six daughters. He also had $450 worth of real estate, indicating he was a successful farmer within five years of being freed. A 1900 census document indicated that Phoebe and John remained married into old age and had 18 children.

10. Emmitt Smith

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In 2010, football legend Emmitt Smith traveled across the American South in search of the story of his slave ancestors on the NBC show Who Do You Think You Are? He came to learn that a young woman in his family tree named Mariah was once owned by a notorious slave trader named Alexander Puryear, whose family owned and bred horses as well. Smith learned that Mariah was passed down to Puryear's son Samuel along with a horse bridle and saddle. When the trail in the U.S. stopped at Mariah, Smith said, "If people can trace horses' bloodlines back to Europe, why can't I trace mine back to Africa? Why?"

11. Don Cheadle

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Cheadle learned on African American Lives: We Come From People that his ancestors Mary and Meyers, a couple, were unable to stop their owner from having sexual relations with Mary, which resulted in a child named Hester. "He can't protect her, he can't stop it, and she can't resist it," Cheadle said of the hopelessness of their situation and how much it must have impacted their family's relationships. Cheadle continued, "I think a lot of what we see with our people is that sort of fractious reaction to that past, a past that's not that far away. It's only three generations away."

12. Blair Underwood

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Like many African-Americans searching for their ancestors, Underwood cannot trace documents relating to his ancestors before emancipation because slaves were listed not by names but by numbers indicating property. "You embark upon a path like this and you know the history of slavery and ownership and chattel slavery and you know all of that, but it always just chafes me," Underwood said during an appearance on Who Do You Think You Are?

In documents from after emancipation, Underwood uncovered an ancestor named Sawney Early, born in 1822, who was trained as a blacksmith, was literate, and owned land. But Early faced an uphill battle against white neighbors who saw him as a threat, and he was given the degrading label of "pestiferous darkey" by one newspaper account following a dispute. Early spent the last years of his life in a mental institution, though there are no records of what caused him to be committed.

13. Condoleezza Rice

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Condoleezza Rice found that when her enslaved great-grandmother Julia was 4 years old, she was valued at $450. Julia went on to live to be over 100, and Rice reflected, "It makes me even sorrier that I didn't meet her. Because she was somebody that everybody talked about ... to think that she started out as somebody they put a price on." Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted of their interview that Rice had always thought of herself as the descendent of strong black men and that tracing her history revealed a long line of strong women too. When Rice learned of what her ancestors endured, she said, "We have trouble talking about the scars of that. That's the unspoken and unfinished business of race in America."