Sunday April 8, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Much of the genealogical research and expertise for tonight’s "Finding Your Roots" episode on public TV focusing on the Sedgwick family was handled by the Boston-based New England Historic Genealogical Society, which operates the website Americanancestors.org and has 60,000 members.

Founded in 1845, the society’s Newbury Street headquarters contains 28 million manuscripts and hundreds of thousands of books, said Brenton Simons, the organization’s president and CEO.

Family histories, especially involving celebrities, are in vogue now, as NBC is also running a series, "Who Do You Think You Are?" on most Friday nights at 8 (Kyra Sedgwick has been featured on that show as well).

Simons said that the society worked with Harvard Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., and his production team for more than a year to help prepare tonight’s and other "Finding Your Roots" episodes.

Gates, 61, a well-known scholar, writer and educator who specializes in African-American history, films the introduction to each program in the rotunda of the society’s Boston office.

"Skip actively engages us not only in research but also in finding potential stories to pursue," Simons explained. "Every case begins with genealogy, and one of our areas of expertise is the Great Migration." The period from 1620 to 1643 saw an influx of about 20,000 English men, women and children who crossed the Atlantic to settle New England.

The society’s senior genealogist, Rhonda McClure, extensively researched the Sedgwick family going back to the 1600s, Simons added. According to the Sedgwick.com family history site, the first known ancestor was William Sedgwicke, born around 1556 in Woburn, Bed fordshire, England.

On the PBS series, Gates interviews the participants "and weaves all this together masterfully," Simons noted. "It’s really transformative, what Skip is doing, and it’s proof that public TV is bringing the importance of personal and family history to millions of viewers by looking at heritage in new ways through a genetic lens, at how various peoples have related to each other over the centuries, and the interconnections we all share."

Simons, who was so taken with the Stockbridge family’s history that he named his dog Sedgwick, visited the "Sedgwick Pie" in the town cemetery during the preparation of tonight’s telecast. "It’s so cool that the family had their dogs buried there, among them," he said.

"Having Kyra on the program enables Skip to illustrate some personal points," according to Simons. "It was a brilliant choice of Skip’s to choose this topic and Kyra to illustrate it."

Along the way, Gates said he was fascinated to discover that a DNA analysis had determined that Kyra Sedgwick is 28 percent Jewish; according to her biography, she currently self-identifies as Jewish.

As for Gates’ own DNA analysis: "I’m 56 percent European, 37 percent African, and 7 percent native American."