Multi-award-winning actress Viola Davis was a guest star on season nine, episode five of the PBS show Finding Your Roots, where she discovered her family’s hidden secrets.
Conversing with Finding Your Roots host Henry Louis Gates, Davis shared that she spent most of her life in Rhode Island; she felt the deepest connection to her birthplace, St. Matthews, South Carolina—primarily because of her bond with her mother’s (Mae Alice Logan) ancestors.
The Woman King actress knew little about her maternal ancestors’ lives. Zooming in on her grandparents, Mozell and Henry Logan, researchers discovered an unusual secret about Henry and his biological father, Davis’ great-grandfather.
A man named Gable Logan was listed as Henry’s father on his 1940 social security application. However, when Henry died in 1979, his obituary read he was the son of Corine Ravenell Logan (his mother) and “the late John Young.”
Corine and Gable’s marriage certificate showed that they married in 1912 and were still married when Henry was born in May 1920. Records showed that Gable served during World War I and was on a ship from France to the United States on July 18, 1919, specifically Camp Mills—a former military base in Long Island, New York.
In other words, records don’t show Gable ever being in South Carolina when Henry was conceived. Gates asked Davis about her thoughts on the situation.
“I think Corrine got bored, had a disconnect and went with someone else while he was away,” The Help actress responded. “I think that that was a very short-lived relationship.”
Researchers looked at the 1920 South Carolina census, which showed that Corine was living with her parents. Four doors down from her parents was a man named John Young, a 35-year-old farmer married to a woman named Josephine.
“It’s like life,” Davis reacted. “It’s people getting with other people who are married. It’s the mess of relationships and the mess of love, sex… it’s truth.”
Researchers and Gates affirmed that Henry’s father was John Young and not Gable Logan. DNA showed Davis’ mother had no matches to the Logan family but did match with the Young family, specifically John Young.
“It makes me know that I entered this world with a big old load from the moment I came out of my mother’s womb,” Davis said. “I’m the amalgamation of a lot of stories and a lot of secrets.”
At six years old, Henry lost his mother to tuberculosis in 1926. The 1930 census showed that John Young had moved his family to Charlotte City, North Carolina.
“Do you think that John’s relationship with Corine may have had something to do with this move?” Gates asked Davis.
“Oh, absolutely,” Davis responded. “You’ve go to bury your secrets.”
“‘Can’t be living four doors away from that heifer,’” Gates jokingly said. “I could hear that conversation. ‘Huh? You don’t think I know? Look at that baby. That baby looks just like you.’”
Gates asked for Davis’ stance on how she believed Henry felt, to which she answered that he probably felt “abandoned” and “labeled unwanted.”
Learning her family’s history taught Davis to appreciate the hardships her ancestors endured that made her become the person she is today.
“I think that all of us want to create a past that benefits us and our fantasies,” she said. “I think because the other is too hard to process. We like stories that are going to elevate us. We’re not so good with messy truth, and this is a messy truth.”
Davis discovered another “messy truth” through her great-great-grandfather, Emanuel Howell. The state archives of South Carolina showed Howell’s pension application asking for compensation for being a servant during the Civil War for the Confederate Army.
“I served in the war between the states as servant,” Davis read. “I served in army about one year, remaining faithful to the Confederacy throughout the said war, and my conduct since the war has been such that I am entitled to a pension under the above act.”
During the Civil War, the Confederates fought to keep slavery alive, and Davis’ great-great-grandfather was forced to serve men who didn’t see him as a human.
“It hurts my soul. It really does,” Davis responded.
Davis said she was grateful she got to know her family history and proud that her bloodline could overcome the challenges.
“I’m proud because I think that me and a lot of my family members have broken generational curses because we dared to dream big and we dared to dig in deep in the dirt and filth and trauma of our childhood and want better for our lives…My story is different, and I’m proud of that,” Davis concluded.