- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Edward Norton says discovering one of his own ancestors owned enslaved Black people is an “uncomfortable” truth that “needs to be acknowledged” and contended with.
The Glass Onion star and Oscar winner discovered the ancestral connection during the season 9 premiere of PBS’ Finding Your Roots. In the episode, which also featured Julia Roberts, host Henry Louis Gates Jr. revealed that Norton’s third great-grandfather, John Winstead, had a record of owning enslaved people in the 1850 North Carolina census.
The revelation — which coincided with Norton learning about being a direct descendant of the Indigenous American historical figure Pocahontas as well as a wealthy iron manufacturer-turned-Union soldier who wrote to Abraham Lincoln and a late 19th-century pro-union labor activist involved in the Pullman Strike — was something Norton said made him uneasy but that had to be addressed.
“The short answer is these things are uncomfortable and you should be uncomfortable with them. Everybody should be uncomfortable with it,” Norton said on Finding Your Roots. “It’s not a judgment on you and your own life, but it’s a judgment on the history of this country and it needs to be acknowledged first and foremost, and then it needs to be contended with.”
Roberts also learned her ancestors, her fourth great-grandfather Edward Townsend, had owned enslaved people on a farm of 2,000 acres. It was something she assumed given her Georgia roots. “You have to figure if you’re from the South, you’re on one side of it or the other,” Roberts said on the show. Still, she said it was important to “understand” and “not shy away from.”
“You can’t turn your back on history even when you become a part of it in a way that doesn’t align with your personal compass,” the actress, whose family also has a direct connection to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family, said.
During the episode, Gates — who said Norton came ready with more detail about his past “than any guest I can recall” — also confirmed something the actor believed to be a legend: his connection to the daughter of Wahunsenacawh, a chief of the Powhatan, an Algonquian-speaking alliance from Tsenacommacah, the Tidewater region in Virginia.
“I understand that was family lore. Well, it is absolutely true,” Gates said of the “direct paper trail” linking Norton to the well-known figure. “John Rolfe and Pocahontas got married on April 5, 1614. Shakespeare dies in 1616, just to put this in perspective.”
“This is about as far back as you can go, unless you’re a Viking,” Norton jokes. “Makes you realize what a small piece of the whole human story you are.”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day