Update: Early on in the production of this episode a producer with Finding Their Roots reached out to a reputable historian about the ongoing research into Martin Lamotte. In an email exchange that I have seen the producer was told specifically that the Louisiana Native Guard was never accepted into service by the Confederate government. This raises important questions about the integrity of this program’s research process.
Tonight’s episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, included a segment on Bryant Gumbel’s family history. His family’s roots in New Orleans led to the revelation that Gumbel’s great-grandfather, Martin Lamotte, who was freed in 1840, served in the Louisiana Native Guard. Gates concludes from this that Lamotte was a Confederate soldier. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the Louisiana Native Guard knows that this unit was never accepted into Confederate service.
Gates insists that Martin Lamotte was a soldier in the Confederate army until he switched uniforms and joined the Union army.
This is one of the most common mistakes made by people who fall for the black Confederate myth. It is true that the men of the Native Guard pledged their loyalty to the Confederacy and as Gates suggests many of these free blacks may have done so to protect their economic interests, but again they never were accepted into the Confederate army. The reason is because the Confederate government refused to accept black men into the service until the final weeks of the war.
How can the show’s researchers be so careless? At this point there is simply no excuse for this kind of oversight.
This is not the first time that Gates has become seduced by the black Confederate myth. Why is not entirely clear. Gates has never done any serious research on the subject. He appears to believe that the black Confederate shows that African Americans cannot be easily labeled or their behavior predicted. He once told me following a talk at Harvard that the reason I deny the existence of these men is because I resist acknowledging that African Americans are complex or “complicated.”
This is another case of Gates allowing the shock value of the black Confederate narrative to take precedence over solid historical research. What is most disappointing is that his guests end up as the victim. Bryant Gumbel is now in possession of a fundamentally flawed account of an important moment in his family’s story.
Everyone at Finding Your Roots should be embarrassed, especially Henry Louis Gates. PBS should acknowledge the error publicly and issue a statement. This is just the kind of thing that will be picked up by individuals and groups that push this myth. They will point to the credibility of PBS as well as Gates’s connection to Harvard.
Yes, this story will just make it into my black Confederates manuscript.