Sunday, March 18, 2018

The last of the Keynotes at RootsTech

Saturday morning’s opening session for RootsTech featured two keynote speakers. But before they were introduced, Ken Chahine from Ancestry (who was the major sponsor for that day) spoke.  He showed a video clip from 2014 when he had last appeared on stage at RootsTech. At that time he made lots of predictions for the future, and we were shown a video clip of that. Many of his predictions had come true, with the notable exception that we would be able to sketch what our ancestors looked like based on reconstructed DNA. One thing that I don’t think I would have been believed possible at the time was the explosion in the number of people who have done a DNA test. In 2014 about 300,000 people had tested with Ancestry. A year ago it was four million people. In early March 2018 seven million people have tested with That is more than the entire population of Sydney, which is currently estimated at about five million people. This expediential growth in DNA can only be good for genealogists and is fantastic for adoptees seeking their roots.

It was then time for the Keynotes. Emcee Jason Hewlett interviewed Mexican pop-rock singer Natalia Lafourcade. She told us a little of her life and sang a few of songs.  The phrase “the voice of an angel” has become very clichéd, but I can’t think of anything more appropriate to describe her singing. After her first song Jason Hewlett was wiping the tears from his eyes. The third song she sang was Remember Me from the movie Coco which she would be singing the following night at the Oscars. [1]

This being RootsTech Natalia was told a little bit about her family history.  She commented that the name Lafourcade sounded more French than Spanish, but thought it was probably just a family myth that her family had a French connection.  Well it wasn’t. She was informed that her ancestor Pierre was born in 1842 in Bordeaux in France. The 33 year-old woman was jumping about in excitement on hearing that. Knowing where you come from has that effect on people.  Pedro, as Pierre became known, moved with his family to Santiago in Chile when he was just 13, from where his descendant, Gaston (Natalia’s father) fled to Mexico after the 1973 coup. There he met Natalia’s mother and the result was this elfin angel-voiced woman.

The next keynote speaker was Professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr. This Yale and Cambridge educated professor became interested in his family history when he was a nine-year-old boy and saw a photo on the day of his grandfather’s burial. It was a photo of his great-great-grandmother Jane Gates, who purchased a house in 1870 for cash, just five years after being a slave (she was freed at the end of the Civil War). On that day Gates’ father also showed him a newspaper report of her death, calling her “Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman.” Ever since that day he had wanted to know about his family tree.

The scrapbook with the report of Jane's death
In the year 2000, before commercial DNA tests were available, he was invited to give a blood sample to find his motherline ancestry[2]. The results came back indicating that he had Nubian ancestry which thrilled him, as at one time the Nubians were the black pharaonic dynasty of Egypt.  He started to wonder if he could combing his interest in genealogy with genetics, and would this help reveal the pre-slavery location of his ancestors.

The answer was yes, in the form of a TV series African American Lives. But after two series of this program he was called a racist! He faced criticism for not featuring white or Jewish people. So the program morphed into Faces of America and finally Finding Your Roots.

Once newspapers started to be digitised he started looking for the obituary of Jane Gates he had seen as a young boy. But it was only less than a week before he stood before us that he finally found it on

So his messages were
  1. Don’t give up – things are being digitised all the time
  2. America is a nation of immigrants. There is no such thing as racial purity – we are all the same under the skin
  3. The best evidence of our unity is our DNA

[1] Remember Me won Best Original Song at that Oscar ceremony.
[2] Mitochondrial DNA

Disclaimer: As a RootsTech Ambassador I receive complimentary admission to the event, invitations to some extra events and dinners and a free registration to give to one of my readers. I bear the cost of my return airfares from Australia and pay for my accommodation and meals.


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