Maya Rudolph was left stunned and saddened when confronted by a dark chapter of her family’s history.
Rudolph made the surprising discovery about her ancestry while tracing her family tree for the TV show Finding Your Roots, although she originally joined the production simply to find out more about who she is.
“I have this thing where I just feel I can be anyone,” she told host Henry Louis Gates Jr. of being biracial (her mom is the late soul singer Minnie Riperton and father composer and music producer Richard Rudolph). “And I think being mixed, too, I kind of, sort of grew up feeling a little orphaned by the idea of my heritage.
“I know I’m from ‘peoples,’ but I don’t know who they are,” she added. “I want to know people’s names, I want to know what they did, I want to know where they lived. I want to go as far back as possible.”
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Rudolph got more than she bargained for. She discovered that at least two of her ancestors were slaves.
The first discovery came when records were uncovered showing her third great-grandfather on her mother’s side was a freed slave denied the compensation and freedom guaranteed him in his former owner’s will. He mounted a legal challenge against the late owner’s grandson and won.
“How is that even possible?” Rudolph asks. “I can’t imagine what the odds could have been, and then they went in his favor. To me, that’s tremendous courage.”
But the next discovery was even more sobering — and it left Rudolph in a puddle of tears. She was presented with a Kentucky census record from 1860 documenting 32 slaves, and it is pointed out that one is her maternal ancestor. The only information listed is that he was male — and just 5 years old.
“I cannot believe I’m looking at this,” she said, before breaking down in tears.
Rudolph’s episode of Finding Your Roots also includes discoveries by Shonda Rhimes and Keenan Ivory Wayans about their own families, and airs Tuesday on PBS.