Celebrities Who Have Family History Of Owning Slaves
25. Anderson Cooper
The CNN News icon is also a member of the Vanderbilt family, one of the oldest and wealthiest families in American history. They made their fortune through plantations and railroads. One of Cooper’s ancestors was actually beaten to death with a farm hoe by his own slave. When Cooper found out, he laughed. When Henry Louis Gates asked Cooper on Finding Your Roots, “did you think he deserved it,” Cooper said, “Yeah, I have no doubt…He had 12 slaves, I don’t feel bad for him. I feel bad for the man who killed him.”
24. Benedict Cumberbatch
The star of Marvel Studio’s Doctor Strange has one of the most unique and recognizable names in Hollywood: Cumberbatch. However, he almost didn’t use this name as his relatives advised against it. For over a century, the Cumberbatch family once owned a massive Barbados sugar plantation. At the time, “Cumberbatch” was associated with “the people who literally work their slaves to death.” It’s such a stain on Cumberbatch’s ancestry that he took roles in 12 Years a Slave and a movie about abolition in the UK called Amazing Grace as a “sort of apology” for his bloodline’s atrocities.
23. Ben Affleck (and his brother Casey)
When the actor currently playing Batman discovered that he was descended from multiple slave-owners, he didn’t have any comment. Instead, he tried to bury the story. The PBS show Finding Your Roots was actually suspended because Affleck pressured the network not to air the findings about his ancestors Benjamin Cole, a slave owner in Georgia, and James McGuire, a New Jersey plantation owner who owned eight slaves in the 1840’s. So far, he’s admitted to one, but still tries to keep the story quiet.
22. Paula Deen
At one point, Deen was one of the Food Network’s biggest stars, notorious for adding a stick of butter to everything. She also reportedly called her black employees “n*ggers” and dreamed of a plantation-themed wedding where black employees served guests to be “historically accurate.” Yet, when she found out on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are that she had ancestors that actually owned slaves, her plantation-era themed wedding didn’t look like a great idea anymore. The woman who wanted to pay black people to pretend to be slaves said that “it is horrific and it is sad” that her ancestors owned people.
21. The Bushes
George H.W. and George W. Bush are not simply descendants of a slave owner, but a slave trader, and a famously vicious one at that. Thomas Walker built an entire corporate empire out of the slave trade. He was the captain, master, or investor of at least 11 slaving voyages from West Africa to America between 1784 and 1792. At least five of the Walker family households owned slaves. Of course, Walker’s great-great-great grandchild, and great-great-great-great grandchild would become the 41st and 43rd presidents.
20. Larry David
When he learned that he had relatives from the south, Larry David said, “I hope no slaves come up in this.” Then Henry David Gates Jr, the host of Finding Your Roots, asked David to turn the page on his documents, where it revealed he owned slaves. “Oh no, you did it!” David exclaimed. “You did it! I knew it! I knew it.” As he and Gates laugh, David claps and says “Unbelievable. Boy oh boy. Name of the slave owner, Henry Burnstein, my great-great-grandfather was a slave owner!” Burstein owned two child slaves, ages 4 and 7. “Professor,” David said to the black host. “I’m so sorry.” Gates just laughed with him.
19. Richard Dawkins
The atheist writer and liberal commentator is a descendant of Henry Dawkins, the owner of over 1000 slaves on his Jamaica plantation. The family’s 400-acre England estate, where Dawkins currently lives, was bought with the money his ancestor made from his slave-driven plantation. When a reporter attacked him with this information, Dawkins brushed it off, saying, “As it happens, my ancestry also boasts an unbroken line of six generations of Anglican clergymen, from the Rev William Smythies (born 1635) to his great great great grandson the Rev Edward Smythies (born 1818). I wonder if [the reporter] thinks I’ve inherited a gene for piety too.”
18. Reba McEntire
On an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? the country music icon discovered that her ancestor George Brasfield owned ten slaves. Uneasy with the findings, she asked the host if there was some mention of how he treated his slaves–if he was kind to them, maybe. Instead, she found out that George was a slave trader who sold children. The revelations of her family’s dark history shook her deeply
17. John McCain
The Arizona Senator and former Republican Nominee for President in 2008 descended from a Mississippi slave owner. His great-great-grandfather owned 120 slaves that labored in bondage on a 2,000-acre plantation in Teoc, Mississippi. The McCain’s never hid from this history, and it is well-known in Teoc, where McCain’s cousins still own most of the original plantation. Now, the descendants of both the slave owners and the slaves of the McCain estate are all closely connected in Teoc, and many of them bear the name McCain.
16. Jimmy Carter
Considering that his great-great-grandfather owned a 2400-acre cotton plantation in Georgia, there is little chance that former President Carter isn’t from a line of slave owners, though it’s never been confirmed. Interestingly enough, Carter currently fights slavery in the United States. “The United States is one of the most culpable countries in … modern slavery,” Carter said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” “The slave trade now greatly exceeds anything that happened in the 19th and 18th centuries.” According to Carter, there are 60,000 slaves in the U.S. In Atlanta alone, 200 of young girls are sold into slavery every month.
15. The Roosevelts
Former Presidents Theodore and Franklin D Roosevelt’s ancestor Johannes owned many slaves in the 1700’s. But one of those slaves made it into history books. Quark was part of the Slave Insurrection of 1741 in New York City. Though it was called that, as well as the “Negro Plot,” the conspiracy consisted of slaves and poor whites in the British colony. They planned to revolt and burn New York City to the ground. Quark and his co-conspirators were caught and executed.
14. President Barack Obama
The 44th President is one of many Black Americans who discovered that their ancestors were both slaves and slave masters. On his mother’s side, his four-times-great-grandfather George Washington Overall owned two slaves. However, on his father’s side, he is descended from slaves. In fact, the first black President of the United States is a descendant of John Punch, Virginia’s first slave, who was purchased in the 1640’s.
13. Michelle Obama
The former first lady’s three-times-great-grandmother Melvina was purchased for $475 when she was just six-years-old. When she was older, she became pregnant with her master’s child, and gave birth to Michelle’s great-great-grandfather. The child, however, grew up free. Michelle commented during the Democratic National Convention, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Five generations before, her family were the slaves. And as it turns out, the family that owned Michelle’s ancestors were the ancestors of Anderson Cooper.
12. Wanda Sykes
On Finding Your Roots, Wanda Sykes discovered that one of her ancestors was an enslaved man and one was a white woman named Elizabeth Banks, who was sentenced to thirty-nine lashes and an extension of her indentured servitude. Her crime? “Fornication & Bastardy with a negro slave.” It was the 1650’s. However, because of Bank’s child’s mixed parentage, they were one of the first free blacks living in America. But that’s not all she learned. Two of her white relatives were also slave owners.
11. Don Cheadle
The actor from Marvel’s Avengers movies has a bit of a different story when it comes to his family’s slavery history. On Finding Your Roots, he discovered that his ancestors weren’t set free at the end of the Civil War, unlike most slaves. The Native American Chickasaw Nation owned them. As a self-governing nation, they weren’t subject to the 13th Amendment. It wasn’t until 1866 that the US Government forced them to free their slaves, but the newly-freed people weren’t granted Chickasaw citizenship. Since Americans did not own them, though, they couldn’t become American citizens either, so they became stranded–people without a country. The story gets even sadder. His ancestors, Mary and Meyers, were husband and wife, but their master raped Mary, resulting in a mixed-race daughter named Hester, making Cheadle a descendant of the slave owner who raped and refused to let his ancestors free.
10. John Legend
John Legend’s ancestors have a tragic story. Peyton Polly was a slave until his master’s death in 1847. Polly “bought” back his eight children, who were enslaved in Kentucky. But a few years later, a gang of white men broke into their home, attempted to murder Polly, and sold the children back into slavery. The father pursued justice in the courts, but could only recover four of his children. The rest would remain slaves until the end of the Civil War, a decade later.
9. Angela Bassett
The actress’s ancestors, Henry and Emily Stokes, were born slaves in the 1820s, and were set free after the Civil War. On Finding Your Roots, Bassett would also learn that their master was the first man to volunteer for the Confederate Army. Soon after the war ended, Henry registered to vote. “I, Henry Stokes, colored, do solemnly swear in the presence of Almighty God, that I am a citizen of Georgia” an old document read. “It is astounding to see people who were considered three-fifths of a human being, to find them. And no, they are five-fifths. One whole. A human being,” Bassett commented.
During an appearance on We Come From People, the rap star learned that he is the descendant of a slave named Pocahontas Little, who was bought at the age of 15. Nas, when seeing the receipt for the sale of his ancestor, said, “They paid $830 for my great-great-great-grandma? I got more than that in my pocket right now.” The slave owners kept detailed records of their slaves, including how much cotton they picked. He also learned that the house where his ancestors were enslaved had burned down, and was now a forest. “I’m just thinking about buying that land,” he declared.
7. Oprah Winfrey
The media tycoon discovered that her great-great-grandparents on both sides of her family tree were slaves. When she saw the documents displaying two of them, Grace and John Lee, as property, she wrote in her book, “It’s one of the reasons I work so hard. I feel like I have not even the right to be tired because I know I come from this.” Another of her ancestors, Constantine Winfrey, was much like Oprah. He pushed himself after the emancipation, learning to read and write in just a year, he then secured 80 acres of land by doing a year of grueling cotton picking (5000 pounds and ten bales). And in 1906, when the white community threatened to burn down the black school, he relocated it to his property so that the children could still receive an education. Philanthropy seems to run in Oprah’s genes.
6. Morgan Freeman
The Oscar-winning actor’s great-great-grandparent Cindy Anderson was interviewed during the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930’s, which sent writers into the South to interview former slaves. Cindy talked about her parents, who were owned by a man named Herbert Cain. Cain owned the two slaves since they were children, but when Cindy was a child, decades later, Cain sold the father. On the program African American Lives: We Come From People, Freeman lamented on how his ancestors were “Not even treated as well as a mule.”
5. Chris Rock
The comedian learned on African American Lives 2 that his great-great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, went from being a slave to serving in the U.S. Colored Troops in the Union Army during the civil war, and rose to the rank of corporal. He also went on to own 65.5 acres of land. “If I had known this, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be a comedian. If I hadn’t lucked into a comedy club at age 20 on a whim, I assumed I would pick up things for white people for the rest of my life. If I’d have known this, it would have taken away the inevitability that I was gonna be nothing,” Rock told host Henry Louis Gates Jr. And then on Oprah, he said, “It’s weird how you don’t realize what low expectations you have for yourself until somebody shows you what your people have actually accomplished.”
4. Spike Lee
The director’s grandmother used to mention a “crazy uncle” named Mars, which led Lee to the show Who Do You Think You Are? to learn about his ancestry. Mars, though, seemed like anything but crazy. After being set free, he went on to own property. In the episode, Lee dug his hands into the soil of Mars’ land and said, “The red clay on my hands is the same dirt Mars worked to make a life for himself and his family after the Civil War. … He set the bar high early to go from a slave to a landowner! Now I know where my family gets that entrepreneurial spirit.” He also learned that another ancestor, Wilson Jackson, the father of Mars’ wife Lucinda, was a slave in a pistol factory for the Confederacy. Lee noted the tragic irony of being forced to make weapons to kill people in order to prevent the liberation of slaves.
3. Denzel Washington
The Oscar-winning actor’s great-great-grandfather John Washington was born into slavery in 1812, and spent 50 years as a Virginian slave until the end of the Civil War. According to Ancenstory.com, by the 1860 census, John would marry a woman named Phoebe, have six daughters, and become a successful farmer. John and Phoebe remained married into old age. In a 1900 census, when John was 88, the couple was listed as having 18 children.
2. Blair Underwood
On Who Do You Think You Are, Underwood learned that most of his relatives could not be traced. This is common for many African-Americans, since many documents listed slaves by a number instead of a name. “You embark upon a path like this, and you know the history of slavery and ownership and chattel slavery, and you know all of that, but it always just chafes me,” the actor said. He found one ancestor, though. Sawney Early was born into slavery in 1822, and unlike most slaves, was taught how to read and write, and was trained as a blacksmith. After the Civil War, he went on to own land, but the white community was constantly at odds with him. The local newspaper even degradingly labeled him “pestiferous darkey,” after a dispute. And though no cause was listed, Early was committed to a mental institution later in life, where he died.
1. Condoleezza Rice
The former Secretary of State learned that her great-grandmother Julia was purchased at the age of 4 for $450. Julia went on to live over 100 years. Rice reflected on Finding Your Roots, “It makes me even sorrier that I didn’t meet her. Because she was somebody that everybody talked about…to think that she started out as somebody they put a price on.” After learning about the hardships her ancestors faced, she said, “We have trouble talking about the scars