Maya Rudolph's Emotional Reaction To Discovering Enslaved Ancestors

Photo: Erik Pendzich/REX Shutterstock.
Unearthing family figures from your past can be exciting and illuminating. But it can also dredge up some painful emotions. Maya Rudolph discovered that firsthand recently, while sitting down to review her ancestral history on the PBS genealogy program Finding Your Roots.

"I have this thing where I just feel I can be anyone," the Saturday Night Live veteran told host Henry Louis Gates Jr. "And I think being mixed, too, I kind of, sort of grew up feeling a little orphaned by the idea of my heritage."

"I know I'm from 'peoples,' but I don't know who they are. I want to know people's names, I want to know what they did, I want to know where they lived," she added. "I want to go as far back as possible."

As it turned out, the show's experts were able to go back nearly two-hundred years — to the 1830s. On the program, the comedian was awed while discovering the history of her own lineage: Roots revealed a maternal grandfather who was freed from slavery upon his owner's death — but had to fight for the liberties granted to him in court, against the original owner's grandson. He ultimately won.

"I can't imagine what the odds could have been, and then they went in his favor. To me, that's tremendous courage," Rudolph reflected. "Yeah, they're my people. That's really cool."

Further inquiry into her maternal line turned up an 1860 Kentucky census document that revealed another relative of Rudolph's — one of 32 slaves owned by a man named John Warren Grigsby. Her relation was identified only by his sex and age: He was just five years old.

"I can't believe I'm looking at this," the Bridesmaids star says before tearing up, making the connection between the child on the census paperwork and her own young daughter. Watch the discovery and the emotional moment in the video clip below.
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This Finding Your Roots episode airs in full on January 19 at 8 p.m. EST.
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