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Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr.

African American Studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was born in Keyser, West Virginia on September 16, 1950, the son of Henry Louis Gates Sr. and Pauline Augusta Coleman. Gates first enrolled in college at Potomac State College in 1968, before transferring to Yale University in 1969. In 1970, he received a fellowship from Yale that would allow him to work and travel in Africa. Gates graduated from Yale in 1973, receiving his B.A. degree in History. Gates was also honored in 1973 with an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Award. The first such grant to be given to an African American, the award allowed Gates to study at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. At Cambridge, Gates enrolled in the Clare College, and studied English Literature. Gates was able to work with scholars such as Wole Soyinka, the first native of Africa to win a Pulitzer Prize, British Labor scholar Raymond Williams and literary critic George Steiner. While he returned to the United States in 1975, Gates continued his studies, and received PhD. in English Language and Literature from the University of Cambridge in 1979.

Gates enrolled at Yale Law School in 1975, but left after a month. He stayed at the New Haven, CT. institution, becoming a secretary at with the University’s unit of African American Studies. In 1976, Gates was appointed as a lecturer in English and African American Studies, and named Director of Undergraduate Studies. Gates was made an Assistant Professor at Yale in 1979, and stayed at the University until 1985 While at Cornell University, where he served as a Professsor of English, Literature and Africana Studies from 1985 to 1990, Gates groundbreaking text Signifying Monkey A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, was released. A 1989 American Book Award winner, the work extended the application of the concept of “signifyin(g)” to analysis of African American works and thus rooted African-American literary criticism in the African American vernacular tradition. The work gained Gates critical acclaim nationally, and he quickly translated his success into a more mainstream career as a “public intellectual,” writing pieces on race and other issues for publications like the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation and The New Republic.

After a short stay at Duke University from 1989 to 1991, Gates moved onto Harvard University, where he became a Professor and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, a position he still holds today. Gates was also the co-founder of, an online magazine, and editor of the Oxford African American Studies Center.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Maker Category
Middle Name

Louis "Skip"


Yale University

The University of Cambridge

First Name


Birth City, State, Country




Favorite Season



West Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Favorite Quote

What You Talkin' About?

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State


Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food

Spaghetti, Meat Sauce

Short Description

English professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. (1950 - ) extended the application of the concept of “signifyin(g)” to analysis of African American works and thus rooted African American literary criticism in the African American vernacular tradition. The work gained Gates critical acclaim nationally, and he quickly translated his success into a more mainstream career as a “public intellectual,”


Harvard University

Cornell University

Duke University

Yale University

Oxford African American Studies Center

Favorite Color

Navy Blue

Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr.'s interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. lists his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. describes his mother's family background, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. talks about African American genetic research</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. recalls his family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. describes his mother's family background, pt. 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. talks about The HistoryMakers Digital Archive</a>







Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. describes his mother's family background, pt. 1
Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. recalls his family background
So I'm going to ask about your family history. I'm going to ask about your mother's side of the family and your father's [Henry Louis Gates, Sr.], but we'll start with your mother's side.$$Okay.$$Can you give us your mother's full name and spell it for us?$$Pauline Augusta Coleman Gates [Pauline Coleman Gates], Pauline Augusta, is standard, Coleman, C-O-L-E-M-A-N.$$Okay, and what is her date of birth and place of birth?$$September 17th, 1916 and she was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.$$All right. Now, what can you tell us about your mother's side of the family? How far back can you trace them and what are the stories from that side?$$Oh, I can trace my family on both sides back to my fourth great-grandparents. So, my mother's third great-grandfather was John Redman, he's my fourth great-grandfather, and John Redman mustered into the Patriot army, the Continental Army, on Christmas Day, 1778 in Winchester, Virginia, and was mustered out in April, 18--April, 1784, and he got a pension from the United States government for his service. He was a free Negro and because of that, my brother, Paul [Paul Gates], and I are members of the Sons of the American Revolution.$$Okay.$$He died about 1819, I think. On the same side, we can identify two sets of fourth great-grandparents. They happened to have lived in the same county, Hardy County, Virginia, which is now West Virginia. Isaac Clifford is my fourth great-grandfather. He, too, was a free Negro. He--we have an interesting paper trail on him because--both of these men were born about 1760, we guess, because a white man named Riley [sic. James Ryan], who lived down the road from Isaac Clifford, captured him and tried to make him a slave on his farm and Isaac actually sued for his freedom and half a dozen white men testified on his behalf in the court case in seventeen seventy- 1795 and 1796, and he was freed for wrongful imprisonment, which is a legal term for, when a free person, among other things, when a free person is, someone tries to impress them back into slavery. So we have a very extensive paper trail. My family owned property, they were free on that line from the middle of the 18th century. They owned property. Some of the property my family, my cousins still own, and they never moved. You know, these are ancestors who were born 250 years ago and they lived thirty miles from where I was born and this, I was born in the Alleghany Mountains of, in the Potomac River basin, halfway about, between Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania] and Washington [D.C.].$$I'm sorry. Now, for some reason in the haste of this, I forgot to ask you your date of birth and place of birth.$$September 16th, 1950, Keyser, West Virginia.$$Okay.$$And, so when the world's best genealogist in my family tree, the people who do the family trees, my guess on finding your roots, I was astonished. I mean, I was floored. We knew a lot about the, the Gates side of the family, but nothing, really, about either side of the family. Not, considering the irony that all these records were in two courthouses thirty miles from where I was born, it's amazing. So American history and Gates family history, in my mother's case, Coleman family history, were inextricably intertwined, through paper.$$So do you think if you had not been Henry Louis Gates [HistoryMaker Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr.] looking for this, would you, you think there--would have been likely that you would have found any of this information?$$Oh, since the revolution in the digitization of records, anyone would have found it now but we found it when I was doing my first PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] series on genealogy and genetics ['African American Lives'] and that was, we were doing the research in 2005. One genealogist, Johni Cerny, found three sets of my third great-grandparents and then a fourth genealogist, going into the archives in, the local archives in Hardy Co- excuse me, a fourth genealogist named Jane Ailes [Jane E. Ailes], going into the archives in Hardy County, Virginia, found the next layer but there is a detailed paper trail. No one had really looked before until digitization. Now we can do it in seconds, what it would take months and months even years to do and a lot of money, someone with a lot of leisure time and great patience, looking page by page, record by record, my god, and now you just go to the computer, type in a name, and your ancestors pop up on the database.$So moving forward through the Civil War period, what were your ancestors doing on your mother's side? Can you give, do you have any idea?$$Well, on my, those two sets (cough), those two sets of fourth great-grandparents on my mother's side, we can also identify one set on my father's side, my father's mother's side, and that was Joe [Joseph Bruce] and Sarah Bruce. They're my fourth great-grandparents, and (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Okay, I'm trying not to get them mixed up, these two sides mixed up.$$Yeah, the first sides, the Redmans, the Redmans and the Cliffords are my fourth great-grandparents on my mother's side. My mother was, again, Pauline Coleman [Pauline Coleman Gates]. On my, but her mother [Margaret Howard Coleman] was a Redman, and her grandmother [Lucy Clifford Howard] was a Clifford, so you could see how it works. On my father's side (yawns), I need an espresso, on my father's side, it's four o'clock, man, I've got to get that caffeine sugar thing, on my father's side, through his mother who was a Redman, she's descended from the Bruces. Joe and Sarah Bruce are my fourth great-grandparents. We actually have the will, we actually know who owned them. They were slaves owned by Abraham Van Meter and in his will in 1823, he freed them and, one of their children, and then promised to free the other children upon the death of his wife, Elizabeth [Elizabeth Van Meter]. She died in 1836 and all of them were freed. So, again, we have a tremendous paper trail and they all lived near each other. All these people knew each other and their descendants. They all lived in the same county [Hardy County, Virginia; Hardy County, West Virginia] and there was a handful of black people up there in these hollers with all these white people and I'm a Redman on both my mother's side and my father's side (laughter), 'cause there's so few black people there. On the Civil War, several members of my family fought in the United States Colored Troops. My [maternal] grandmother's uncle, J.R. Clifford [John Robert Clifford], was the first black lawyer in the State of West Virginia and he's on a stamp, United States postal stamp, in the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement series. He was a member of the Niagara Movement with Du Bois [W.E.B. Du Bois] and, in fact, was the host of the 1906 meeting at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Harpers Ferry is about two hours, I guess, east of my hometown [Keyser, West Virginia]. So--$$So, so was he connected to Storer College [Harpers Ferry, West Virginia] there?$$Oh, yeah.$$Okay.$$Everybody was around there, but he had a law practice and he had his own newspaper. He was a newspaper editor and publisher, it was called, the Pioneer Press. These are my genes, man, that's where I come from.$$Okay, there are writers and, Pioneer Press, okay. So, okay, so moving forward to your grandparents, I guess. What were they doing?$$My paternal grandparents--$$No maternal.$$My maternal grandparents, my grandfather died in 1945. He was a janitor, a laborer, not a jani- he was a laborer at the Westvaco paper company [West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company; Westvaco Corporation]. His name was Paul Coleman and my grandmother was a housewife, she had twelve children. On my father's side, his father [Edward St. Lawrence Gates] was, had his own business, and his grandfather [Edward Gates] did. They had a chimney sweep business and a janitorial business and he, my grandfather was the janitor at the First National Bank [First National Bank and Trust Company of Western Maryland] in Cumberland, Maryland, and my grandmother, Gertrude Helen Redman [Gertrude Helen Redman Gates], was a housewife.$$Well your father's name is the same as yours except a senior [Henry Louis Gates, Sr.], right?$$Um-hm.$$And what was your father's date of birth and place of birth?$$My father was born June the 8th, 1913 in Patterson Creek, West Virginia.$$And that's close by?$$It's all there (laughter), in that same thirty miles.$$All right, all right. Now did, can you go back as far on your father's side as you--$$I already did, remember through my father's mother's side.$$Oh, okay, all right.$$Yeah, and my father's father's side, we could go back to Jane Gates, who was a slave, who was born in 1819. This is the only side that we can trace on my family tree where the person was not freed before the end of the Civil War. Jane's children were all fathered by the same man, she said, that's what she told her children. Her children all looked white and according to the DNA analysis, he was an Irishman because I have the O'Neill haplotype, my Y DNA, and it comes from, well, it's very common in Ireland. About 10 percent of all the men in Dublin [Ireland] have the same Y DNA signature.