Linda Clyde | Jan 16, 2018

Who Is Henry Louis Gates Jr.?

To put it simply, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a man who knows his history, and if knowledge is power, he is a powerful man indeed. Gates has been awarded many titles, such as Emmy Award–winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, to name a few. But those who have seen his documentaries and his groundbreaking genealogy series on PBS, Finding Your Roots, know he is also deeply immersed in genealogy. On this popular series, he leads his guests to find results and hidden details about their bloodlines using expert-conducted research on DNA. In the end, it’s put into a context of American culture while the guests share touching experiences and grow more in touch with their roots.

Gates’s passion for family history and genealogy began at a young age, when he was introduced by his father to the oldest Gates family member on record through an image and an obituary; her name—Jane Gates, a slave. Her obituary described her as an “estimable woman.” Gates, then nine years old, looked up the word estimable in his dictionary upon returning home. It is recorded that he thought to himself, “If that lady was estimable, maybe I’m estimable too.” So began a very accomplished life, destined to receive a great amount of respect for unprecedented contributions to the narrative of American history.

For many years, Gates has been engaged in the remarkable work of discovering and preserving priceless pieces of information about African-American history. His research—and the evidence of it—is extensive. From lectures to books to films to documentaries and more, Gates has brought previously unknown information about African-American history out of obscurity. His dedication to this important work has touched millions of lives in the United States and in various regions around the world.

As a natural lover of learning, obtaining a quality education was a priority from the time Gates was very young. A native of Piedmont, West Virginia; he graduated from Piedmont High School, attended Potomac State College of West Virginia University, and then received a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale, summa cum laude. But he didn’t stop there. He’d always hoped to attend Cambridge University, a dream that was realized when he became the first African American to be awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship. Shortly thereafter, he found himself in England, where he studied English literature and added an MA and PhD from Clare College at the University of Cambridge to his credentials. He now has more than 50 honorary degrees.

His current title? Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. His work began at Harvard in 1991 after teaching at many other prestigious universities including Yale, Cornell, and Duke. At Harvard, he has been an innovator and leader in the fields of African and African-American studies. There are only 20 other Harvard staff members serving as university professors, which speaks to the remarkable contribution Gates has made on the Harvard campus.

Gates is also editor in chief at the Oxford African American Studies Center, a comprehensive collection of online resources for African-American studies and African history and culture. It includes more than 10,000 articles by top scholars specializing in related fields. It combines research and technology to help users discover biographies, subject entries, images, maps, and charts related to their historical interests.

His passion for discovery has led him to write and cowrite many books, and along the way he has unearthed and published priceless early African-American literature, such as Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson and the amazing discovery of what is likely to be the first novel written by a black woman, known as The Bondwoman’s Narrative.

Gates will be an honored guest at RootsTech 2018. Don’t miss this incredible opportunity to listen to the fascinating story of one of America’s top scholars.

Linda Clyde

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