Burton, the renowned host of PBS educational series Reading Rainbow and star of Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, came into the show with questions about his family tree, since him and his two sisters were raised by a single mother, Erma Gene, in Sacramento, California. And Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., host of the PBS genealogy series that traces celebrities’ ancestry, and is currently in its tenth season, had plenty of answers for him.
Gates uncovered that on his mother’s side, Burton had a great-great-grandfather named James Henry Dixon, who was white. Dixon had an extramarital relationship with a Black woman who was a former slave, and they had a child together, who was Burton’s great-grandmother, Mary.
Watch Burton Discover He’s Part-White on Finding Your Roots:
“Wow,” replied a stunned Burton upon learning the news, later adding, “I’d have fought you five minutes ago if you had told me that I had a white great-great-grandfather… What?! Kunta got white ancestry. What?! Come on now, Skip!”
When asked by Gates if he’d ever thought he had a “white direct ancestor,” Burton laughed, tilted his head back, and screamed, “Noooooooo! No, I had no idea! So, granny was half-white?”
On top of all that, Dixon was born in 1847, and as a teenager served in the North Carolina Confederate Junior Reserves, a subset of the Confederate Army, which fought to defend slavery.
“There is some conflict roiling inside of me right now, but… oddly enough, I feel a pathway opening up,” offered Burton. “I believe we need to have this conversation about who we are and how we got here. I see that we are so polarized politically, emotionally, and racially. We are not talking to each other. So, I’ve been looking for an entry point to talk to white America. Here it is.”
Last year, Rolling Stone spoke to True Blood and Magic Mike actor Joe Manganiello, who discovered that he’s part-Black and descended from slaves on the PBS show. Future Season 10 episodes will feature Better Call Saul actor Bob Odenkirk, Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar, and Married with Children star Ed O’Neill.