Hollywood movie star Ben Affleck and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates continue to revise recent history in their public statements surrounding Affleck’s successful pressuring of Gates, executive producer and host of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” to remove any mention of his slaveholding ancestor, Benjamin L. Cole, from the “Roots of Freedom” episode that aired on PBS in October.
Late Wednesday, Affleck claimed in a Facebook post that during the filming process, Gates presented no details about the life of his slaveholding ancestor Benjamin Cole.
“I see this story being framed as ‘censorship’ on some sites,” Affleck wrote, “when I told Skip [Professor Henry Louis Gates] I was uneasy about the slave owner, he told me he had not included it in his preliminary cut because there wasn’t much detail – a name and no details, so he wasn’t going with it to begin with.” (emphasis added)
But an unedited transcript of the first version of the “Roots of Freedom” episode that featured Affleck, released yesterday on Gawker and again today at the Washington Post and the Independent, belies this claim:
VOICE OVER: THIS MAN WAS BEN’S THIRD GREAT GRANDFATHER, BENJAMIN COLE, AND HE WAS LIVING IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA AT THE TIME.
COLE WAS ONE OF SAVANNAH’S MOST PROMINENT CITIZENS—A WEATLHY LAND OWNER AND THE SHERIFF OF THE ENTIRE COUNTY.
AFFLECK: That’s amazing. I got a…we have a house in Savannah.
GATES: Did it ever occur to you that you had deep roots there?
AFFLECK: No, it didn’t. It didn’t at all. I had no idea I had any southern roots at all, so this is remarkable.
COLE OWNED A LARGE FARM IN GEORGIA AT A TIME WHEN SLAVE LABOR HAD MADE THE STATE THE CENTER OF THE SOUTH’S COTTON KINGDOM.
WE WANTED TO SEE IF WE COULD LEARN HOW BEN’S ANCESTOR FELT ABOUT THIS PECULIAR INSTITUTION.
AND FOR THAT, WE STARTED WITH THE 1850 CENSUS.
GATES: This is the slave schedule of the 1850 Census. In 1850, they would list the owner of slaves in a separate Census.
AFFLECK: There’s Benjamin Cole, owned 25 slaves.
GATES: Your third great-grandfather owned 25 slaves. He was a slave owner.
THESE HOLDINGS PUT BENJAMIN COLE AMONG THE SOUTHERN ELITE.
ONLY ABOUT 10% OF ALL SLAVE HOLDERS OWNED 20 SLAVES OR MORE.
AFFLECK: God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history.
Breitbart News has sent numerous emails and made several phone calls to Professor Gates and Peter Kunhardt, another executive producer of the “Finding Your Roots” series, as well as Ben Affleck’s publicist at Sunshine Sachs requesting they confirm or deny the authenticity of this transcript. None have responded.
Boston.com reported that in an statement on Wednesday, Gates said “the omission was made not because of Affleck’s request, but because he had other ancestors with more interesting stories that the show decided to spotlight instead.” (emphasis added)
But the details of Benjamin Cole’s life—well known to both Affleck and Gates in April 2014 when those three to four hours of filming of Affleck and Gates conversations by the producers of the series took place—created by far the most compelling story of any of Affleck’s ancestors and perfectly suited the original premise of that episode, as indicated by that unedited first transcript obtained by Gawker:
GATES VOICE OVER: IN THIS EPISODE, WE PIECE TOGETHER THE LOST FAMILY HISTORIES OF ACTOR BEN AFFLECK, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BEN JEALOUS, AND ACTOR KHANDI ALEXANDER.
THEIR ROOTS LEAD TO ANCESTORS WHOSE LIVES WERE SHAPED BY THE TWO DEFINING WARS IN OUR NATIONS HISTORY. THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CIVIL WAR.
Benjamin Cole was Sheriff of Chatham County, Georgia (where Savannah is the county seat) for nine tumultuous years, before, during, and after the Civil War, from 1859 to 1868.
Cole was a key member of the civic and political leadership of Savannah, and was part of the group that administered the city after General Sherman conquered the city in 1864.
Ironically, in 2013 Affleck purchased what is rumored to be a $20 million home on nearby Hampton Island, and is frequently seen in the city of Savannah.
The New York Times offers a dramatic telling of the story of life in Savannah during the Civil War, and the critical role played by the local political leadership, of which Benjamin Cole was a member.
Breitbart also contacted PBS, which airs the “Finding Your Roots” series on its network, for comment on the Affleck-Gates controversy, but the network was cautiously noncommittal.
“It is in everyone’s interest that we move quickly to bring the internal review to completion, but we also want to ensure that we are being thorough. We will share the findings of the review as soon as it is concluded,” PBS said in a statement released Thursday morning.
Breitbart News pressed PBS to learn if it will remove Professor Gates from his position as executive producer of “Finding Your Roots” if the “internal review” concludes, as it is likely to do if it is comprehensive, that he violated PBS policies in how he dealt with this episode.
PBS responded cautiously to that inquiry.
“Professor Gates is not an employee of PBS. Once the internal review concludes, we will share the findings. It is premature to comment on what will happen until the review is completed,” a spokesperson for PBS tells Breitbart News.
The “Finding Your Roots Series,” according the PBS website, “is a production of Kunhardt McGee Productions, Inkwell Films and WNET in association with Ark Media. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Peter Kunhardt, Dyllan McGee and Julie Anderson are executive producers. Stephen Segaller is executive producer in charge for WNET.”
The series boasts an impressive list of corporate financial sponsors:
Major corporate support for the second season of Finding Your Roots is provided by Ancestry.com,” the website says. “Additional corporate funding is provided by Ford Motor Company, Johnson & Johnson and McDonald’s. Major support is also provided by the Ford Foundation, Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky, Candace King Weir, the Daryl and Steven Roth Foundation and Loida N. Lewis. Support is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS.
Surprisingly, the “Finding Your Roots” website continues to offer this description of the “Roots of Freedom” episode:
Ben Affleck, Khandi Alexander and Benjamin Jealous learn their families have long been engaged in the battle for freedom and civil rights, principles passed down through generations of ancestors.
Affleck and Gates apparently believe their historical revisionism—of both Affleck’s ancestry and the events surrounding the censored production of the “Roots of Freedom” episode featuring Affleck—will have little consequence on their professional careers.
PBS, the corporate sponsors of “Finding Your Roots,” and the viewing public may have a different perspective.