Black Social Activist; European Roots?

Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone made a unique discovery on PBS' Finding Your Roots.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Geoffrey Canada is a social activist, author and educator who is best-known for his position as president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. You might recognize him from the education documentary Waiting for Superman, which profiled the organization’s nationally recognized work to increase high school and college graduation rates in a 97-block area of Harlem, N.Y.

Canada, who grew up poor in New York City’s South Bronx and has spent an entire career focused on improving the lives of urban children, recently turned his focus inward — to his own DNA and ancestry. A guest on Finding Your Roots (a PBS series hosted by The Roots editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr.), he learned about his family history dating back to his third great-grandparents and the unique details of his ancestry. The most surprising finding: Gates told Canada that he’s among the 1 percent of African Americans who can trace both their mother’s and father’s lines to Europe.

The Root talked to Canada about what he found out, why it’s unlikely that he’ll ever get answers to some of his questions and what the revelations about his identity mean for his professional mission.

The Root: How did you get involved with the Finding Your Roots series? 

Geoffrey Canada: I was talking with Skip [Henry Louis Gates Jr.], and he asked me if I had any interest in DNA and if I knew about his program, which I did. I explained to him that I’d been on a 25- to 30-year search to answer some of those questions in my own life. I was interested simply because I’d run into blind alleys, was stonewalled and wasn’t able to make any additional progress researching my father’s side of my family. At that point I didn’t know anyone who could help me get past my father’s generation. I’d run into a dead end. So I said, “Great, we should do it.”

TR: What did you learn?

GC: It was absolutely fascinating. One of the big questions in my life was about where my family name came from. I’ve met other Canadas, but I’ve never met anyone who could answer that question. I learned that we were once the Cannadays, and that name came from a white slave owner who owned my ancestors. That was very interesting to me. I had no idea where the name came from, but I did always think it was probably the original name.  

Also fascinating was the fact that I could trace my ancestors back into slavery past the first census in the 1800s that began to list black folks. That was because my ancestors were both left in wills, both on my mother’s side and on my father’s side. That allowed me to track my family much further back than most African Americans are able to do.