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In a rare genealogical discovery, comic actress Wanda Sykes has been able to identify that her familial roots in America go as far back as the 17th century, according to a New York Times report.

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Her paternal ninth great-grandmother was Elizabeth Banks, a free white woman. According to a June 20, 1683, court document from York County, Va., Banks was punished with 39 lashes and extended indentured servitude for “fornication & Bastardy with a Negroe slave.”

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Mary Banks, the biracial daughter that Elizabeth Banks birthed, lived as a free person of color but under indentured servitude as well.

Skyes‘ family history was researched for Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., a new PBS series that debuts this Sunday. The show is set to feature a multi-ethnic mix of big name celebrities, including Samuel L. Jackson, Barbara Walters, Harry Connick Jr., Branford Marsalis and more.

According to the historian Ira Berlin, a professor at the University of Maryland known for his work on slavery and African-American history, Sykes’ find is quite rare. He told the Times:

“This is an extraordinary case and the only such case that I know of in which it is possible to trace a black family rooted in freedom from the late 17th century to the present.”

Gates, who has led many research projects of ancestral roots, added:

“The bottom line is that Wanda Sykes has the longest continuously documented family tree of any African American we have ever researched.”

Always the jokester, Sykes said to the Times, referring to Gates by his nickname:

“I was so disappointed he didn’t get me any casino money out of this…Come on Skip, tell me I’m a relative of Pocahontas. I would have retired.”

Sykes, 48, who grew up in Portsmouth, Va., is among many generations of Sykeses from Virginia.

Johni Cerny, who is the chief genealogist for Mr. Gates’s television programs, added that it’s possible for many African Americans with white ancestry to even trace roots to European ancestors even beyond the 1600s. About 85 percent of African Americans have some European ancestry, she explained.

But Cerny said that Sykes’ story is unique:

“The unique thing about Wanda is that she descends from 10 generations of free Virginia mulattos, which is more rare than descendants of mixed-race African-Americans who descend from English royalty.”

Read more here.

It will be interesting to see if Sykes’ discovery and Gates’ PBS show has a ripple effect on viewers who may become inspired to do their own genealogical digging.

Popular sites like have already made piecing together one’s family tree an easier prospect. The details many uncover can spark emotions and also be an enlightening moment at the same time.


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Brett Johnson is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and the founder of the music and culture blog