"I know where I came from": "Finding Your Roots" unearths its viewers' ancestral mysteries

Plucked from everyday life onto the hit PBS show, its viewers received the star treatment in a special episode

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published April 12, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Young woman on sofa with grandmother looking at photo album (Getty Images/Gpointstudio)
Young woman on sofa with grandmother looking at photo album (Getty Images/Gpointstudio)

Megan Robertson is a pediatric speech-language pathologist from Mechanicsburg, Pennslyvania. She's also a mom to her eight-year-old daughter. But for years she and her family have tried to solve the looming mystery of her great-grandfather, Green.

A big fan of PBS' genealogy show "Finding Your Roots," she applied to be part of a viewer-centered episode, which sparked a new journey for her family. She never thought she would get picked for the special tenth season finale episode, titled "Viewers Like You," with thousands of nationwide applicants also vying for a chance for the show's researchers to uncover their family mysteries, too. 

But Robertson ended up being one of three viewers plucked from everyday life to appear onto the PBS show hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr

Salon talked to Robertson about the intrigue around her great-grandfather, his complicated story and the importance of Americans discovering their deep origins. She also said that if Gates and "Finding Your Roots" decide to try another viewer-centered episode, she ""encourages everyone to try. Because if you don't try, you'll never know." 

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was it like being picked by "Finding Your Roots?" And have you been a fan of the show in the past?

I've been a longtime fan of the show. I've watched it for many years. I've watched most of the episodes and having been a longtime fan, I'm obviously a big fan of Dr. Gates. And so I follow him and "Finding Your Roots" on all of the social and social media channels that they are part of. And so when he posted about the open casting, I immediately was like, "Well, I have a family mystery."

It was a couple months until I heard anything, but getting picked for the show — not to sound cliche — but [it] was completely life-changing. I mean, I got to tell my great-uncle who his grandparents were, which is something that we've looked into for a long time and had no success finding any information out about so to be able to provide that information to my entire family was was above and beyond anything I could ever ever imagined.

This story really begins with your great-grandfather Green. What about him was so shrouded in mystery to your family?

Green passed away when my grandfather was only five. He was a railroad worker in Yeager, West Virginia. He was tragically killed on the railroad when my grandfather was five. If my grandfather even remembered him, you know, we didn't talk about him a whole lot. I don't think that his widow spoke about him very much. I think it was too much for her.

So, we didn't have any information about him. We knew that he was a veteran. He served in World War I, which was also not mentioned in the episode, but he served in World War I. And that was about the extent of information that we heard about Green.

What were the implications of the reveal, learning that he was abandoned by his mother to start another family? 

The entire taping take took about six hours. So, there was so much conversation between myself and Dr. Gates that was not in the episode.  

"To make that kind of decision to leave the two boys and move to a different state and to start a basically new family, and then go on to have five more children — it was something, trying to think about that as a mom."

We talked a lot about it because I'm a mom. You know, I have an eight and a half-year-old, she's almost nine now, thinking about her as a five-year-old. That [Green's mother] just left and how that must have been for her, but also for them. To make that kind of decision to leave the two boys and move to a different state and to start a basically new family, and then go on to have five more children — it was something, trying to think about that as a mom. 

What was it like sharing this with your own family?

My family are not strangers to adoption, I have cousins who are adopted. To tell them that it was an adoption story, but it turned into something so much more and brought a lot of closure to it. Knowing that we come by our surname honestly, you know, was another thing.

I've always felt like a Church. I've always felt like a Church and knowing that might have been something else was always kind of gnawing at me because I always felt very close to the Church side of my family. Getting to share that information with them was amazing. We're actually going to go down to Florida and bring along the ancestral tree and show my great uncle. The whole side of the family, which he's never seen yet, so we're gonna go do that in a couple of weeks.

It was really beautiful that you had an emotional reaction to being named Halsey or finding out what your surname was. What went through your mind when that was revealed to you?

The story that I was always told growing up was that Green's mother was likely a very young teenage girl. They didn't really go into that in the episode, but that I had always been told that she was a very young teenage girl and that she had worked in the physician's office, and that Green was likely as a result of a relationship that she had with the physician.

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But he was married ... and that's why, in the episode, I mentioned that I was prepared to be angry with him because I thought that she was this young, vulnerable child and to find out that was incorrect [and there was] a whole different story. 

We had always been told the physician in the town's last name was Holtz, so we had thought it was probably going to be Holtz. We had heard Moxley. We heard Holtz. We had heard a couple different last names, but Holtz was the one that always made the most sense for some reason. 

So, to look down with a page to a last name that I've never heard of, like, "I don't know any Halsey." You know, I had never seen that last name. It was nothing on our radar at all. Just, I couldn't contain it. It was very emotional because that didn't look or sound like any last name that I ever thought I would be connected with. 

Finding out who you are is a lasting process for Americans, especially looking at genealogy. Did you ever do digging on your own? What is the process like and why you start to do this?

We had done what a lot of Americans do, and we did 23andMe.

We did that a few years ago and the overwhelming thing about 23andMe was that it had linked me to, like,1,700 people. I didn't even know where to begin to look through those because there were so many surnames listed. 

So, when I started going through the show, they sent me additional tests. They sent my dad the genome test, and we got a lot of more information, but I think a lot of Americans can be overwhelmed with that. They don't know what to do after that. It's a little easier when you come from somebody named "Green," it's easy to track those kinds of things, but when you hit a dead-end like adoption, or you hit a dead-end where a family member dies before any information can be given, we don't know where to look for that information. 

How do you feel like the show was able to kind of reconcile all of those questions that you had?

They gave me a lot of closure. They were able to tell me definitive answers. It wasn't, "Well, more than likely ..." or "more than likely the surname was this." It was definitive. DNA doesn't lie. They've said it in so many episodes, "DNA don't lie." 

Being able to put names to all of that, they went clear back to my 12th great-grandfather. I mean, way, way back and I have names for everybody. I have places of birth and I know where I come from. 

How has your life changed before and after the show? Do you feel like there's been a shift?

There's there's definitely a shift. I actually emailed Dr. Gates this morning and I told him my family feels closer than we have in a lot. We're a very tight-knit family, don't get me wrong, but I feel like we were closer. I got to go visit my side of the family in West Virginia for Easter and I brought along the ancestral tree and to lay it out in front of my family because almost all of them came.

It is a huge family tree and to be able to show that to them, and to go through and look at all the names and "Oh, this person has the same birthday" and just looking through all that kind of stuff, it really brought us together.

My grandmother is around 93, 94 years old and she has dementia, but she was pointing out the name of her mom and she was like, "That's my mommy." It's really brought us together as corny as that sounds, it really has — to be able to walk through all that with them.

What has this experience meant to you? What do you think it will mean to other people if this is opened up to other viewers? What has the impact been?

Personally, I mean, I obviously did this a lot for my dad to be able to give him information, because I got all four of my grandparents until I was in college and he didn't know his grandparents. It's meant so much to me. More than anything, it's meant that I got to give the gift to my family. I got to do that for them and that that was a lot.

"I think that it helped us realize that generational trauma is a very real thing, but that you can overcome that in one generation."

I hope for other Americans, I hope it encourages them. I hope it encourages people who feel like they can't find answers. There's hope for finding answers. There's DNA test kits and there's people. 

I've met lots of local genealogy people in Harrisburg recently over the weekend, where that's their thing. They love to do that. They love to dig. There are resources out there to help people. Even if you don't get picked to be on a TV show like this, there are lots of people who are willing and able to help you. 

Why is there such an importance in finding out what your origins are like? Why do you think that that holds such stock for people and why did it hold to just stock for you?

I think especially in our country nowadays, speaking from my personal experience, locally, when there's a lot of argument about what should be taught in schools and what shouldn't be taught in schools and that kind of thing that speaks to me because that we've been dealing with that on a local level where I live. So needing to know that information and needing to be able to provide that information to my daughter, and providing accurate information to her and not sugarcoating where we come from— those kinds of things that was really big for me.

What do you think is the larger effect this has had on your family and your relationships with your family?

It pulls out what we as a family overcame from generation to generation because we are very tight-knit, whereas Green could have gone the opposite direction. Green could have been very bitter about what happened to him. Instead, it just brought him to be a family man. So instead of being a loner, and instead of abandoning people, instead of doing all of that, it brought him together.

For the rest of my family, I can speak for them as well, that it brought us together. We've all kind of thought individually and as a group [about] all of the terrible scenarios that it could have been, and to know that it was just it was a mom. It was a mom making a hard decision and it wasn't any other terrible circumstance, I think that it helped us realize that generational trauma is a very real thing, but that you can overcome that in one generation. Green had this terrible, weird childhood of going from household to household and knowing that, although he passed away when his children were young, his widow, kept us all together. So I mean, my dad knew her. He called her Ma Church. She passed away when my dad was in elementary school, but he remembers her very fondly. And she kept the whole family together after Greene passed away and I think it just brought us all together.  

Finding Your Roots” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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