Don Cheadle's Deep American Roots

In 2008 the actor discovered his family's stunning and sad connection to Native Americans as part of the genealogy project African American Lives.

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The Chickasaw people cannot see any reason or just cause why they should be required to do more for their freed slaves than the white people have done for theirs. It was by the example and teaching of the white man that we purchased at enormous prices their slaves and used their labor and was forced by the result of their war to liberate our slaves at a great loss and sacrifice on our part and we do not hold or consider our nation responsible for their present situation.

Donald Frank Cheadle Jr. was born on Nov. 29, 1964, in Kansas City, Mo. His family had roots there going back several generations. "Kansas City was where all my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were," he said. "We lived close to each other."

Don was lucky enough to grow up knowing his paternal great-grandmother, Clennie Carroll, who was born in Blackwater, Mo., in 1886. "My great-grandmother lived to be 107. She was just a stone's throw from slavery. And she had real acuity. She was very, very smart, very aware of everything. I had a personal relationship with somebody who was a generation away from it."

His family moved from Kansas City when Don was still a child. His father, Donald Cheadle Sr., a clinical psychologist, was pursuing an academic career and moved from the university to university before settling at the University of Denver.

Don says he became aware of race after they left Kansas City. "Everybody was black in Kansas City," he said. "When we started moving around -- especially when we got to Nebraska -- it got pretty eclectic racially.

"My mom raised us to be very open -- not gullible -- but open to the life experience. She urged us to stay connected to who we are and make sure we maintained our black friends. She was aware of racism and discussed it with us," said Don.

As we explored Don's family tree, we discovered that although Kansas City is important to his family history, Oklahoma is equally important.   

Don's grandfather, Lee Therman Cheadle, was born in Oklahoma in 1910, moved to Missouri during his youth and married there. Don's paternal great-grandfather, William Cheadle, was born Sept. 25, 1882, in what was known as Indian Territory and would become the state of Oklahoma. Don's paternal grandfather's family, it turned out, was very much a product of his birth state.

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In the 1830s the United States government, enforcing the Indian Removal Act, forcibly relocated the Five Civilized Tribes -- the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole -- from their homelands in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida into what would become Oklahoma territory. They traveled the infamous Trail of Tears at staggered intervals: Choctaw, in 1831; Seminole in 1832; Creek in 1834; Chickasaw in 1837; and Cherokee in 1838.