Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Inducted Into the Sons of the American Revolution

Historians in the News

Cambridge, MA. – Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) on July 10 at the society's 116th annual convention, held in Addison, Texas.

Gates learned of the Revolutionary War veteran in his lineage while filming his PBS documentary, "African American Lives," a program which used innovations in DNA research and old-fashioned genealogical sleuthing to trace the ancestry of eight notable African Americans, including entertainers Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, Whoopi Goldberg, astronaut Mae Jemison, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and Bishop T.D. Jakes.

"You could have knocked me over with a feather," Gates said of the revelation of the identity of his fifth great-grandfather. "It was my hope that African Americans, and children in particular, would be inspired by this series to embrace both science and history as paths to their learning about both their African roots and their American roots."

Gates is also undertaking a joint project with the SAR to identify other descendants of the approximately 5,000 African Americans who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

"The African American contribution to the American struggle for independence has long been underestimated and under-appreciated," Gates said in announcing the partnership between the Du Bois Institute and the SAR. He added, "This project stands to correct and even transform the historical record, as we are only now beginning to discover just how many blacks were defenders of liberty and great American patriots during the Revolutionary War."

The effort is being funded by a grant from Joseph W. Dooley, the head of the lineage society's membership committee, and by the Du Bois Institute. Jane Ailes of Research Consultants, a genealogical consulting firm in Virginia, will undertake a survey of the 80,000 pension applications of Revolutionary War veterans and compare these names to Federal Census records from 1790 to 1850, to ascertain the race of each applicant. Once the research is complete, the Du Bois Institute and the SAR will advertise for descendants of these individuals and invite them to apply for membership in the SAR or the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

About the partnership between the SAR and the Du Bois Institute, and the end goal of increasing African American membership in the two lineage societies, Dooley said, "Black men who love their country and their family seek to honor both by joining the SAR, just as their white fellow Americans have been doing for more than a century."

The collaboration of the Du Bois Institute and the SAR has the potential to alter, perhaps dramatically, the composition of the SAR, an organization which currently counts under 30 African Americans under its 26,000 members. Historians commonly estimate the number of African Americans and other non-whites who served in the Revolutionary War as 5,000, but the actual number is unknown. In recent years both the SAR and the DAR have begun to open their rolls to African Americans who meet the strict membership guidelines, under which the military service of the ancestor has to be documented, as does the genealogical relationship of the applicant to that individual.

A PBS film crew also recorded Gates's address at the SAR induction ceremony for the upcoming sequel of "African American Lives." Several members of his family are also applying to or awaiting approval from the SAR and the DAR. During filming of “African American Lives,” is when Gates first discovered that his mother's line descended from John Redman, a free Mulatto who enlisted in a Virginia regiment in 1778. Coincidentally, Gates's paternal grandmother was a Redman as well.

The W. E. B. Du Bois Institute is the nation's oldest research center dedicated to the study of the history, culture, and social institutions of Africans and African Americans.
From its inception, the Institute has supported the development of over 250 scholars, including such leading figures as Kathleen Cleaver, Cathy J. Cohen, Thomas Cripps, St. Clair Drake, George Frederickson, Nellie McKay, Nell Painter, Arnold Rampersad, Cornel West, Wole Soyinka, and Dorothy Porter Wesley. Today, the Institute awards up to twenty fellowships annually to scholars at various stages in their careers in the fields of African and African American studies, broadly defined to cover the expanse of the African Diaspora. In addition, the Institute is actively involved with the community at large through its Martin Luther King, Jr. After-School Program and its W. E. B. Du Bois Society - both programs are focused on the academic development of African American youth.

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