*New Orleans-born musician Branford Marsalis was hit with a one-two punch in Sunday’s season premiere of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.”
First, the Grammy winning saxophonist had always figured that he had white, European blood in his family line – as do most African Americans – and had always assumed that it was the result of a slave master raping one of his ancestors, as is usually the case.
Dr. Gates confirmed that Branford indeed descends from a German white man, Johann Learson, who changed his name to John Learson and shows up in New Orleans in 1851. But he fathered a child with a free black woman – named Mertay Valentine, Branford’s great, great, great grandmother). The relationship appears to have been a long one, as they had seven children – each bearing Learson’s surname.
Then, Dr. Gates dropped the other bombshell. The Marsalis family does not actually descend from a Marsalis. Their blood line comes from Isaac Black, who was married to Branford’s great, great grandmother Elizabeth Montgomery. They had a child together, Simeon, before divorcing a short time later. She then married Joseph Marsalis, who adopted Simeon. The boy then took on his step-father’s name.
“When Professor Gates was telling it to me, I kind of said, ‘You know, however I got here is fine with me,’” Marsalis recalls of that moment in the episode.
As for Branford’s other family history revealed on the show, he said it was “cool” and ‘nice to know,” but nothing really shocked him.
“I didn’t have any of those ‘Ahh’ moments because I studied history in college, and particularly from the start of the English colony to now, a lot of life in those times was about survival,” he says. “When you’re trying to wonder whether or not you’re going to starve to death or whether you’re going to be attacked by hostile natives or all of the things that were going on back then in times when you had excessive amounts of heat and these poor Southern folks are wearing these ridiculous English costumes and it’s 98 degrees outside and there’s no windows and certainly no air conditioning, life had a different meaning then. It was a completely different thing. So people, particularly post-Civil War, black folks did what they had to do to survive, and that’s how I felt about it.
“I was happy to know that my family dynamic was no different than those soap operas my mom used to watch on TV basically talking about, you know, Todd the lost Marsalis shows up.
“But I felt something. It was great for me. I felt a sense of pride in answering some question marks. The unfortunate thing is I will never know who my fourth grandfather is or my fifth. It’s never going to happen.
Below, Dr. Gates reveals that Alicia Keys and Colin Powell are among the celebrities who had been booked to trace their family roots for the series in season one, then, decided at the last minute to pull out.
Watch the full Branford Marsalis/Harry Connick Jr. episode of “Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” below.