Finding Your Roots exclusive: S. Epatha Merkerson reacts to profoundly disturbing reveal about her ancestors

S. Epatha Merkerson on Finding Your Roots
S. Epatha Merkerson learns her ancestor slept on planks with little comforts. Pic credit: PBS

On the Tuesday episode of Finding Your Roots, host and star Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes two actors on a gutting and emotional deep dive into their ancestral past as the harsh condition of a slave’s life are brought forth, and it’s powerfully moving.

Actor S. Epatha Merkerson and athlete and television personality Michael Strahan are both featured tonight. Both discover their family histories have profound stories.

Heartbreaking and sobering, our exclusive clip shows that S. Epatha reacts with tears and joy as she pays homage to her slave ancestors who suffered greatly and at the hands of Jesuit priests.

Back at the summer TCA press tour, we asked Henry Louis Gates and panelist S. Epatha Merkerson about season five.

We asked about the participants’ reactions when they learned terrible things about their family, and what their reaction was.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said: “Using DNA, we linked Epatha Merkerson to her third-great-grandfather, who was held in slavery by Jesuit priests, at Georgetown University. Many of you have read about this scandal, this revolution. 1838, the Jesuits, Georgetown was running out of money. They sold 273 slaves down the river to the South.

“And using their records, Georgetown re-bought her, he paid back two more generations to her 5th-great grandparents deep in slavery, by name. Unprecedented. Totally extraordinary. You found the most horrendous story in the history of slavery, I think.”

Epatha said: “It was really painful to understand that, first of all, my family, as I had some feeling they would come out of slavery. I think that what was most painful for me was knowing that they were enslaved on land that was owned by the Catholic Church and that the Pope had sanctioned their selling to keep Georgetown University afloat. “

“But the good out of that and I still get emotional about it is that I don’t come from nameless people. I am a member of the Hawkins’ clan. And because they were at Georgetown, everything was documented, even the name of the boat that took them from Port Tobacco, Maryland.

“So, indeed, it is a painful history. But the fact that I understand that I am a member of the Hawkins Butler clan, it’s far more powerful for me.

Season 5 of PBS Finding Your Roots shares the ancestral stories of 25 guests, and along with S. Epatha Merkerson include Marisa Tomei, Felicity Huffman, Laura Linney, Michael K. Williams, Andy Samberg, Chloe Sevigny, Kal Penn, George R.R. Martin, Christiane Amanpour, Ann Curry, Joe Madison, Lisa Ling, Sheryl Sandberg, Seth Meyers and more.

Finding Your Roots airs on Tuesdays at 8/7c on PBS

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