History

“Roots” Actor LeVar Burton Discovers Great-Great-Grandad Was A White Confederate Soldier Who Defended Slavery

BY Abena Dzaka January 21, 2024 4:00 PM EDT
Photo Credit: Facebook @LeVar Burton

66-year-old American actor, director, and television host Levar Burton who gained popularity after starring as Kunta Kinte in the TV version of Alex Haley’s “Roots”, has discovered a hidden family history.

While researching his family’s history for an episode of PBS’s popular series “Finding Your Roots,” LeVar Burton took a one-two punch.

He learned of a family secret that was kept hidden on the PBD show. Burton discovered that Mary Sills, his great-great-grandmother on his mother’s side, was raised by a man she mistakenly believed to be her biological father. Burton was acquainted with Sills in his early years.

Sills was the biological daughter of a white farmer named James Henry Dixon, who had a wife and family at the time of her birth.

“And she was the other family on the other side,” Burton said in shock. This led Gates to ask, “Were you expecting that? Did you have any idea you had a white ancestor?”

LeVar Burton shook his head and laughed. “No, no. I had no idea. So Granny was half white. Wow,” he said. Then, Gates revealed that Dixon served in the Confederate Army as a teenager.

“Are you kidding me? Oh my God, oh my God. I did not see this coming,” Burton said.

Being in the junior reserves, which were primarily used for guard duty, Dixon most likely never saw combat, according to Gates. He did point out that Dixon continued to serve in an army that was dedicated to defending slavery. Dixon subsequently had a child with a woman who was born into slavery later in life.

“I’m always curious as to how white men of that era rationalized their relationships with black women, particularly when those relationships involved an uneven power dynamic. While taking in the news, Burton remarked, “There has to be a strong emotional and mental disconnect created.”

“So it’s possible in my mind that he could’ve contemplated it and was conflicted at worst, maybe repentant at best. And then there’s the possibility that he didn’t think about it at all,” he continued.

“Right, and we’ll never know. They could’ve been in love; it could’ve been something terrible. We don’t know,” Gates replied.

Burton was left floored by the discoveries that Gates and his team made.

“Now I’d have fought you five minutes ago if you’d told me that I had a white great-great-grandfather,” he said.

“You can fight me, but it’s the truth, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Gates teased.

Keeping up with their playful banter, Burton referenced the character he once played on “Roots.”

“What? Kunta has white ancestry. What? Come on now, Skip,” he said.

Gates was curious to know how it made Burton feel to hear that he had a member of the Confederate Army in his family’s ancestry.

“There’s some conflict roiling inside of me right now, but also, oddly enough, I feel a pathway opening up… At this moment, I believe that as Americans, we need to have this conversation about who we are and how we are here. But yet, I see that we are so polarized politically and racially,” he said.

Gates agreed and said, “Right, we’re not talking to each other.”

“And so I’ve been looking for an entry point to talk to white America,” Burton explained.

“Well, that door just opened,” Gates replied.

“Here it is,” Burton said.

Burton has had an illustrious TV career significant among them was hosting the PBS Kids educational television series Reading Rainbow for 23 years.