For African Americans, the legacy of slavery can make it difficult to trace family history. The 1870 Census was the first to include African Americans by name, a fact that can leave gaping holes in a Black person’s past. But fashion-icon Andre Leon Talley got some surprising answers to the questions he had about his ancestors shortly before his death.
The fashion world lost a larger than life personality when the six-foot-six, always outspoken fashion journalist and stylist died in New York in January at age 73. But you can catch a glimpse of him in the season finale of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” Talley’s episode marks the end of the eighth season of the show in which professor and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. helps people trace their family history in an effort to learn more about their ancestors.
In the episode, which was filmed in February 2021, Talley is shocked to learn that his great-great-grandfather was willed as property from one white slave owner to another. The season finale will air on PBS on April 19. “I have no words to articulate what I feel now,” Talley said, “But it’s extraordinary to realize this history, that it is part of my history.”
Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Durham, NC, Talley was raised by his grandmother, who influenced his love of fashion. In an interview with NPR, Talley says he grew up loving watching the fashions at church on Sundays. And says he first fell in love with Vogue magazine after discovering it in his local library. He moved to New York and worked at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. But he is probably most well-known for the years he spent at Vogue, where he was Editor-at-Large from 1998 to 2013.
Talley, who spent much of his career around A-listers in the world of fashion and entertainment said he thought a lot about what life was like for those generations of his family that came before him. “I’ve often thought about them.” Talley said about his ancestors. “I’ve thought about, maybe imagine, in slavery or maybe not — but I just know that they were aware of being Black and indentured.” He added, “It was just the way the world was and the way the world is — and it’s a sad thing.”