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Teresa Sewell/Medill

Christopher Gardner said it was "overwhelming" to learn he had ancestors aboard the Amistad slave ship.

DNA traces African past

by Teresa Sewell
Feb 20, 2008


Teresa Sewell/Medill

Rick Kittles explains to one of the luncheon attendees their bloodline history. 

Many know Christopher Gardner from the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness,” where actor Will Smith portrayed Gardner’s journey from sleeping in train stations to becoming a self-made millionaire.

But now, thanks to African Ancestry Inc., everyone can “really” know where Gardner’s from.

He took part in an N’DIGO magazine project that traced the maternal roots of six black lawmakers, politicians and celebrities.

At a Wednesday luncheon to reveal the DNA sampling results, Gardner learned that with 95 percent accuracy, his bloodline started in Sierra Leone and he had relatives upon the infamous Amistad slave ship.

“Hmm,” Gardner said widening his eyes after Rick Kittles, cofounder and scientific director of African Ancestry Inc, handed him the proof.

After the presentation, Gardner said it was amazing “to have with this set of accuracy, an understanding of “Where was I before I was here?”

N’DIGO publisher Hermene Hartman said the ceremony was just a “highlight” to Black History Month. Even though “it has been impossible” for blacks to trace their roots in the past because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, she said things have changed.

The testing has been around since 1995, but has gained popularity with celebrities years back. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) 2 has also launched a DNA testing documentary “African American Lives” this month. And Hartman said the experience doesn’t have to stop there.

“Sometimes people see stuff on TV …. Oprah Winfrey did it and Chris Tucker did it and you think, well wow, that’s way beyond me,” she added. But with a $350 fee for either a maternal or paternal trace, she said “everybody can do it.”

From the first steps of taking cotton swabs of saliva to actually processing the results takes about four to six weeks. African Ancestry’s database of over 25,000 African genetic sequences can trace someone to a specific country in Africa or an African ethnic group.

Wayne Watson, Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, said the test verifies stories passed down throughout his generation.

And with DNA evidence to add to “genealogy, oral history and archival analysis,” Watson said he gets “a more complete picture” of who he is.

Scientific Director Rick Kittles said his work is humbling.

“I get very excited to have the opportunity to provide this level of information to the African-American population,” he said.

Gardner left the luncheon with a smile on his face. He said he needed time to "take in" his newfound information.  

“This is so overwhelming,” Gardner said. “It’s something that I want to encourage more people to do, especially African-Americans.”

N’DIGO will have a description of the project in Thursday’s edition. Anyone interested in the testing can log onto