An episode of PBS’ Finding Your Roots regarding the lineage of actor Ben Affleck aired with a major omission last September: one of the star’s ancestors owned slaves.
While Affleck has now admitted he personally requested the network leave the information out of the broadcast, and the men behind the show’s production continue to revise their stories. The Daily Mail reports the Batman actor has now been ancestrally linked to at least three different slave holders, including a wealthy landowner who once purchased a young black male named Tobe for 80 pounds, the predominant currency at the time in colonial America.
According to documents obtained by the Mail, Tobe’s owner was a man named Nathaniel Stanley, who was regarded as an intelligent man of “respected piety and evangelical sentiments.” Per land records in Farmington, Connecticut, Nathaniel bought a young boy in Hartford on October 28, 1728 for £80.
A bill of sale allegedly reveals Tobe was referred to as a “negro boy” who the previous owner sold as “proper estate.”
The site also reports the bill of sale partially reads: “Rec’d of Nathaniel Stanley of Farmington ye Sume of Eighty Pounds. In full for a Negro Boy. Called Tobe, which Boy this Day I have sold to him as my proper Estate…”
Additional documents uncovered state Tobe, or an alternate spelling of Tobey, was recorded as “a negro who died 12 may 1806 at the age of 76.” Moreover, Nathaniel Stanley, who was born September 23, 1679, was somebody of means and importance.
Affleck’s other slave holding ancestors were, as revealed by the actor on social media, a man in Georgia named Benjamin Cole, and per the Mail, an unnamed Irish farmer from New Jersey who owned eight slaves, the British-based publication reports.
Of course none of these details were revealed in Affleck’s PBS feature, which censored them out of the program at the direction of host Henry Louis Gates Jr., information which first came to light after emails and other documents stolen from Sony last year were published by WikiLeaks earlier this month.
In a stolen email sent to Sony CEO Michael Lynton before the PBS series’ second season, Gates, who is also a Harvard professor, wrote that an unnamed “megastar” had requested producers “edit out something about one of his ancestors – the fact that he owned slaves.”
“Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates replied. “What do we do?”
While the two discussed concerns regarding the editorial integrity of not reporting the find, the information was ultimately left out of the September broadcast.
After the information became public, PBS issued the following response:
“It is clear from the exchange how seriously Professor Gates takes editorial integrity. He has told us that after reviewing approximately ten hours of footage for the episode, he and his producers made an independent editorial judgement to choose the most compelling narrative. The range and depth of the stories on Finding Your Roots speak for themselves.”
Affleck said Tuesday on Facebook:
“I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.”
Wednesday he tweeted:
Lots of people have been asking who the guy was. His name was Benjamin Cole – lived in Georgia on my Mom's side about six generations back.
— Ben Affleck (@BenAffleck) April 22, 2015
As of Friday morning, the Finding Your Roots website ironically continues to describe the Affleck episode, titled “Roots of Freedom,” as follows: “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.”
In the episode, the actor learns that his sixth great grandfather, a man named Jesse Stanley, fought in the American Revolution and served under George Washington. Genealogist Elizabeth Banas has discovered that Jesse is the grandson of Nathaniel Stanley.
You can view the documents unearthed by Banas here.