Actor Sterling K. Brown became emotional when learning about his familial history on PBS’ Finding Your Roots.
During the episode, which aired earlier this month, Brown said he had struggled to trace his paternal roots after his father died of heart failure when the This Is Us actor was 10.
Luckily for the Golden Globe-winning actor, host Henry Louis Gates Jr. used Brown’s grandmother’s death certificate to trace down his third great-grandparents almost a century — Henry Woodley and Sarah Nelson married in 1870, reports NBC.
"It's like the mystery of it all, like, that people actually existed," Brown said. "You know in theory that, like, you have to come from somewhere, but now you have real people with real names and real birthplaces.
The 1900 U.S. Census revealed that Woodley and Nelson lived with Nelson’s mother Nancy, all of whom were born before the Civil War, reports Yahoo.
"So you know what that means?" Gates asked Brown.
“It just hit me,” Brown replied. “They were slaves.”
He told Gates that while he’s always thought his ancestors were slaves, he never thought he’d be able to know for sure.
“Yes, I’ve thought about it. But I never thought I’d be able to trace it, to actually know it. This is amazing,” Brown said.
Brown began tearing up when learning of his maternal ancestry. As he read that his fifth great-grandparents were born in Africa, he became emotional.
It is a rarity to uncover a native born African identified in the ancestry of black Americans, which is exactly what we found with @SterlingKBrown. Moments like this are why we do #FindingYourRoots! pic.twitter.com/3uXlXojULY— Henry Louis Gates Jr (@HenryLouisGates) January 8, 2020
“Being Black in this country… you get so used to not knowing for so long,” he said. “It’s a joy to know that it’s real. I’m real, is what it feels like.
What a gift to learn more about my ancestry and where I came from. Thank you, @HenryLouisGates for helping me find my roots!🙏🏿 #FindingYourRoots airs tonight at 8/7c on your local @PBS station and streams online at https://t.co/tp7pUudrcs. pic.twitter.com/3J0H0tRxGS— Sterling K Brown (@SterlingKBrown) January 7, 2020
The host told Brown that his ancestors likely came in the last wave of the transatlantic slave trade before it became illegal in 1808.
"So you're a recent African," Gates told Brown. "Isn't that interesting? Because lots of other people would've, by 1820, would've been descended from generations of Americanized Africans. But you weren't."
Gates explained that it is often difficult for Black people to find their lineage because slavery broke family bonds. Many times, Black people must search their histories through records of slave owners, which were kept as business documents accounting for their assets — this is how Gates found Brown’s ancestors.
“It’s only through documents like this that we can begin to approximate the identity of a black person’s ancestors who were enslaved,” Gates told Brown.
The series, which began in 2012, has found the history of Questlove, Michael Strahan, Carmelo Anthony, Janet Mock and Lupita Nyong’o among a long list of other celebrities. Season six, the latest run, will help Issa Rae, Jordan Peele, Soledad O’Brien, Queen Latifah and more.