LeVar Burton learns family tree includes Confederate soldier

LeVar Burton got a glimpse into his lineage in “Finding Your Roots” and discovered something about his ancestors that shocked him.

The former “Reading Rainbow” host, freedom-to-read advocate and actor knew little about his lineage. He’d been estranged from his father, Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, since he was 11, and his mother, Erma Gene Christian, had been tight-lipped about her own history. Burton said it was “impossible” to get her to open-up about her upbringing.

On the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” host Henry Louis Gates Jr. explained to Burton that the show uses “every tool available,” including a genealogist who combed through paper trails stretching back hundreds of years, and DNA experts to compile a thorough history into what the series calls a “book of life.”

Not knowing much about his extended family, Burton said, “You grow up with just blanks, right? No information, no clue and no real way to overcome that blind spot.” Burton said not understanding his family tree had left him in the dark about who he is. “This information is stuff that we need in order to feel whole.”

In the episode, Gates revealed to Burton that his great-grandmother on his mother’s side, Mary Sills, had listed her father’s name as Louis Sills on a Social Security application she filed in 1940. But tests of Burton’s DNA found that he had no genetic connection to Louis Sills, meaning Sills couldn’t have been Mary’s father. Her biological father was a man named James Henry Dixon, a white farmer who was married with several children.

“So Granny was half-white,” commented a stunned Burton.

The series then dropped a bomb on the “Star Trek: Next Generation” actor: Dixon was a teenager living in North Carolina when the Civil War broke out in 1861, and when Dixon turned 17 he joined the junior reserves of the Confederate Army. Dixon was a defender of slavery who went on to father a child with a Black woman born into slavery.

“I often wonder about white men of the period and how they justify to themselves their relations with Black women, especially those in an unbalanced power dynamic,” Burton remarked. “There has to be a powerful disconnect created emotionally and mentally. So it’s possible in my mind that he could have contemplated it and was conflicted, at worst, maybe repentant, at best. And then there’s the possibility that he didn’t think about it at all.”

Gates said Burton had taken two DNA tests. “The two major commercial DNA tests almost never have tested an African American who was 100% sub-Saharan African,” Gates told Burton. “We all have white ancestors.”

“There’s some conflict roiling inside of me right now,” Burton responded. “But oddly enough, I feel a pathway opening up. … Knowing what I know about the history of this nation, I’ve wanted, especially in this current time frame, I believe that as Americans we need to have this conversation about who we are and how we got here.”

Burton said that Americans are so polarized politically and racially, “so I’ve been looking for an entry point to talk to white America. Here it is.”

“Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on PBS, and can be streamed online.

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