University of Memphis historian Susan O'Donovan featured on John Legend segment of PBS' 'Finding Your Roots'


A University of Memphis history scholar was a featured expert on this past Sunday's episode of the PBS celebrity genealogy series "Finding Your Roots," hosted by well-known Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Susan O'Donovan, a specialist in antebellum history, spoke during an episode exploring the roots of comedian Wanda Sykes and R&B singer-songwriter John Legend (pictured), both of whom discovered in the show that they are descended from free black Americans. One of Legend's ancestors who had been freed by his master sought out his still-enslaved children and bought them himself, putting them on their own path to freedom. O'Donovan explained that this was common practice before the Civil War, when free black Americans sought to protect their loved ones who were subject to being kidnapped and sold back into bondage.

I have done my best to transcribe the first of O'Donovan's segments. View the entire program on the embedded video player below. The first segment with O'Donovan comes on around 19 minutes in:

GATES: To understand why a former slave would buy his own relatives, we headed to the University of Memphis, where historian Susan O'Donovan studies antebellum American history.

O'DONOVAN: Free people of color sometimes find it in their best interest to own their families. I mean, for starters, this is, you know, they're living in a system that's structured around the protection of slave property, so you've got to have law on your side.

In buying one's family, you have control over that family, and then you can, you know, free them.

Watch John Legend and Wanda Sykes on PBS. See more from Finding Your Roots.


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