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Henry Louis Gates talks about helping students 'find their roots' at annual Peoria MLK Luncheon

Henry Louis Gates talks at the annual
Camryn Cutinello
Henry Louis Gates talks at the annual Peoria MLK Luncheon.

For more than a decade, Henry Louis Gates has helped celebrities find their ancestors. Now, he wants to help America's youth do the same thing.

Gates, a professor, documentary filmmaker and host of PBS' "Finding Your Roots," was the keynote speaker at the annual MLK Luncheon Monday in Peoria.

He said his interest in genealogy began when he was a kid and his father showed him a picture of his great-great grandmother, Jane Gates. At the time, she was the oldest ancestor he knew of.

Gates went on to get his bachelor's degree in history and his PhD in English literature. He was later contacted by Rick Hills, a Black geneticist, who asked Gates if he wanted to trace his DNA. Gates said yes.

After finding out his own ancestry, Gates said he got the idea to pitch a show helping African Americans find what parts of Africa their ancestors came from. His original idea morphed into "Finding Your Roots" after he got a letter from a Jewish women asking why the program didn't include other ethnicities.

Gates said his next project is a curriculum for students to trace their own ancestry. He said he was inspired by a poll that asked inner city Black kids to list five things that are white. The students listed things such as getting straight A's and going to the Smithsonian.

"When I was growing up, the blackest thing you could be was an educated man or an educated woman," Gates said. "And somehow a large percentage of our own people have forgotten that, we have not been good about teaching ... the next generation."

Gates said this disconnect transcends race.

"I also know that the culture of poverty is colorblind," he said. "I grew up in West Virginia, with poor white people. And those same patterns of behavior misalignment, you might call, exists for poor people everywhere."

The curriculum will be named the Martin Luther King Genealogical Curriculum and will be taught in those same inner city schools. Students will trace their family trees, learn about DNA and complete genealogical tests to find out where they came from.

"I believe that having each child trace their family tree will reignite their love of learning and make that kind of survey that I cited a thing in the past," Gates said.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.