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Gates Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Capping Whitman College’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. presented a lecture titled “Roots: Genealogy, Genetics and African American History” to a packed crowd in Cordiner Hall.

Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, is a prominent researcher of African and African American studies and genealogy.  Along with a number of published books, Gates has written, produced and hosted an acclaimed PBS documentary series detailing the genealogy of famous African Americans, titled African American Lives.

But he also has a direct link to Whitman College. One of his former students from Harvard is Nadine Knight, a Whitman assistant professor of English. She introduced him, saying: “Few scholars in African American studies have done more to uncover and to revive the deep cultural and artistic links that unite African American culture with roots in Africa and beyond.” Knight shared a story from when she was a new graduate student at Harvard, nervous to meet with the famous Gates for the first time, not ever imagining that about 10 years later she would be at the Whitman lectern introducing her mentor.  

Upon taking the stage, Gates said about his former student: “There is nothing like being a professor and having a student who turns out to be more brilliant that you are.  And this is a school that is smart enough to hire her and keep her,” said Gates.

During the lecture, Gates recounted the day he become interested in learning about his roots, when as a boy he first learned that his great-grandmother had been a slave.  Since then he has “never lost that passion for genealogy.”   That passion has followed him through the decades on his mission to find his own roots, a work in progress, and to help others discover their own genealogy.

His vision is to use genealogy as a way to interest inner-city youth in studying history and science, saying “our favorite subject is ourselves,” so getting kids involved in learning by starting with themselves offers great possibility.

Gates lively and humorous speaking style gave listeners the feeling of “hearing a story from an old friend.  I could have listened to him for hours,” said Whitman staff member Lynn Lunden, associate vice president for development. “I found it very impressive that so many local community members and Whitman people came out to hear him, and he seemed able to connect with all of us.  The event gave me an additional sense of pride about Whitman College.”

“I would come here anytime you invite me.  It is great to be here, it is just so beautiful, such a fantastically pretty place,” said Gates about Walla Walla.   During his visit he also met with a group of Whitman students, drawn from different campus disciplines for a more intimate discussion about his work.

The lecture was funded by the Whitman College Office of the President, Mabel Groseclose Endowed Lectures, the Whitman Events Board and the Intercultural Center.