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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. delivers Martin Luther King, Jr. keynote address

The Martin Luther King, Jr. event at Swinney Recreation Center was well-attended
The Martin Luther King, Jr. event at Swinney Recreation Center was well-attended

Contributions from Mark Linville News Editor

When the news broke in July 2009 that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested outside his home in Cambridge, Mass., many were shocked.

The Cambridge police were called to investigate a possible break-in when Gates was having difficulty opening his own front door after the lock had jammed.

This incident sparked a nationwide debate about racial profiling, a problem many minorities in this country still face.

Although President Obama publically criticized the Cambridge police for their actions, in one of the most unique attempts at reconciliation, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden invited Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, to the White House to have some beers and discuss what happened.

This incident put Gates into the national spotlight, but before this, Gates was already well-known in the world of academia as an expert in African-American genealogy, a documentary filmmaker, author and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research.

Due to his extensive experience in African-American studies, Gates was invited to UMKC as this year’s keynote speaker in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

On Friday night, Gates spoke to a large showing at Swinney Recreation Center.

Gates spoke at Swinney Recreation Center on Friday, Jan. 14
Gates spoke at Swinney Recreation Center on Friday, Jan. 14

He said his decision to study African-American genealogy was a result of an experience he had with his father, after the death of his grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates.

“My dad turned to my brother and me and said he wanted to show us something,” Gates said.

Gates recalled following his father and brother upstairs to their grandfather’s bedroom.

Gate’s father opened up a cabinet in the room that contained bank ledgers Edward St. Lawrence Gates had collected in his time working as a janitor at First National Bank.

Edward used these ledgers as scrapbooks of old photos and newspaper clippings.

Gates father opened one in particular that contained a photo of the eldest traceable Gates family member, Jane Gates, a slave who was part White.

Jane Gates lived from 1819-1888.

In addition to the photo, the book contained an obituary for Jane that referred her as “An estimable Colored woman.”

Gates’ father said, “I never want you to forget this lady; this is the oldest Gates that we can trace.”

Learning about his ancestry really got Gates thinking.

“I wanted to know what my relationship was to this woman,” Gates said.

“Since that day, July 4, 1960, [the day Edward St. Lawrence Gates passed away] I have been obsessed with my family tree,” Gates said.

Gates began interviewing family members on both his mother’s and father’s sides to find his roots and discover where he came from.

“I needed to know where I am from,” Gates said.

Gates signed copies of his books at Swinney Recreation Center
Gates signed copies of his books at Swinney Recreation Center

This study of genealogy has also led to a PBS documentary titled “African American Lives,” which traces the ancestry of many prominent African Americans, including Oprah, Chris Tucker and Whoppi Goldberg.

Gates showed a 10 minute clip of the upcoming “African-American Lives 2.”

Gates shared some surprising statistics with the audience, stating the majority of African-Americans in the United States are of a small percentage of European descent.

The average ancestry of African-Americans is 77.6 percent African, 17.5 percent European and 4.9 percent Native American/Eastern Asian.

Aside from speaking about family roots and genealogy, Gates also spoke about the value of Affirmative Action and how it has benefited him through his professional career.

“I wouldn’t have gone to Yale [University] without Affirmative Action,” Gates said. “My daddy, as I told you, was working class; he worked two jobs 37 years to put my brother and me through college. We wouldn’t [have] had the class background to be admitted.”

According to Gates, he would have never had the opportunities to pursue his education and work in certain fields had Affirmative Action not given minorities a chance to have a successful future.

Henry Louis Gates
Henry Louis Gates

Biography: Henry Louis Gates

Nathan Zoschke Copy Editor/Asst. Production Manager

Sept. 16, 1950

Gates is born in Keyser, W.Va.


Gates receives a hairline hip fracture while playing touch football. The injury was misdiagnosed by a doctor, and Gates’ right leg is more than two inches shorter than his left, forcing him to walk with a cane.


Gates is one of 12 Yale students selected as a Scholar of the House, a program that allows seniors to pursue an area of interest, such as writing a book or composing a symphony, instead of taking classes.

Gates becomes the first African-American to receive an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship to study at Cambridge. Gates later earns his M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Cambridge.


Gates joins Harvard’s faculty, previously having taught at Drake, Cornell and Yale.

Gates serves as Chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, a position he continued in through 2006.


TIME lists Gates as one of the “25 most influential Americans.”


Gates writes and produces “African-American Lives,” the first documentary to use genealogy and genetic science to trace African-American history.


Gates is arrested on charges of disorderly conduct outside his home in Cambridge, Mass. after a dispute with a police officer. President Obama accused the police of acting ‘stupidly,’ but later apologized.


Gates serves as director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Studies at Harvard. Gates has authored myriad books and papers.

Sources: U.S. News and World Report

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