Angela Davis appeared on February 21, 2023, episode of 'Finding Your Roots' to uncover the mysteries of her family's past.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 24, 2023. It has since been updated.
Angela Davis is a 79-year-old author and symbol of the Black Power movement. As a political activist and truth seeker, Davis appeared on February 21, 2023, episode of "Finding Your Roots" to uncover the mysteries of her family's past. Hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the show presented Davis with some answers to questions she'd had for decades. The first question posed to Gates' team was to find the identity of Davis' maternal grandparents, whom her mother, Sallye Bell, never knew. Though they were unable to learn her grandmother's name, the team was able to trace her father's identity: John Austin Darden, a white Alabama lawyer. When Davis saw a photo of Darden, she noted the family resemblance, "He has my mother's lips. It's so funny, I can see her in him". The team also learned that Darden had four sons and two daughters, leaving the possibility that her mother had other Black half-siblings.
Later on, the show traced Davis' ancestry even further back to her fourth great-grandfather, Stephen Darden, who was born in colonial Virginia and served in the Revolutionary War. Davis connected this to her own activism, saying she had always been told that activists like her were un-American and the best way to pay tribute to this country, is to try to change it.
“Do you know what you’re looking at? That is a list of the passengers on the Mayflower.”— Henry Louis Gates Jr (@HenryLouisGates) February 22, 2023
Our researchers discovered #AngelaDavis’s ancestors traveled to the US on the Mayflower and here is her reaction. #FindingYourRoots pic.twitter.com/G2HhA9BSrT
Davis also digested the news that Stephen Darden became a slave owner after moving to Georgia. Though she was glad to learn more about her family, the news was bittersweet. The team then uncovered the identity of Davis' paternal grandfather. They found that her father, Benjamin Frank Davis' mother, Mollie Spencer, had been in a relationship with a white man named Murphy Jones, who was Frank Davis' biological father. It was a shocking discovery, as interracial sex was illegal across the South at that time.
The team then found that Spencer's father, Davis' great-grandfather Isom Spencer, was an enslaved person. Isom Spencer eventually won a court battle to free his nephews, who had been retained as slaves by his former owner after the Civil War. The news of his resistance made Davis feel proud of her ancestors.
Finally, the team discovered that Davis was descended from William Brewster, one of the 101 people who came to the colonies aboard the Mayflower. It was a surprise to Davis, who laughed and said she "never" expected to learn that she was descended from one of the nation's white settlers. "No. I can't believe this. No, my ancestors did not come here on the Mayflower," Davis says
Davis' appearance in "Finding Your Roots" was an emotional experience for her, which was filled with a roller coaster of contradicting emotions. Though she was glad to have answers to some of her lingering questions, the show also opened up new questions and possibilities. Regardless, the episode showed Davis her family's history of resistance, which is something she can be proud of.