‘Finding Your Roots’ spotlights Montclair’s Jeh Johnson
Whenever he returned to Montclair from Washington, D.C., during his years as secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Charles Johnson would enter his home to greet his wife, Susan, while a bevy of armored black Suburban SUVs lined up on the street.
Johnson spent many years working for the Clinton and Obama administrations, and even served for 7 hours and 32 minutes with the incoming Trump administration.
He’s now a partner in the Manhattan-based Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison law firm and is a Columbia University trustee. Among his numerous awards, commendations and honorary degrees, Montclair’s honored Johnson as the grand marshal of the town’s 2016 July 4th parade. Johnson’s musical taste and repartee can be enjoyed on WBGO, Newark’s jazz radio station, as he occasionally deejays “All Things Soul” on Saturday mornings.
These aspects of Jeh Johnson’s life are known, even acclaimed.
And, to a degree, Johnson’s ancestry is known and noted. For instance, his paternal grandfather, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, was an acclaimed sociologist and, in 1946, became the first Black president of Fisk University in Nashville.
But there is so much more woven into Johnson’s ancestral past, as revealed in the episode of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” airing Tuesday, Feb. 21.
Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., host of “Finding Your Roots,” and the show’s team of genealogists and genetics researchers delve into Johnson’s ancestry and deliver revelations.
“I’m going to be profiled,” Johnson acknowledged last week when he was the guest of the Montclair-based Dunworkin Club. “It should be interesting.”
Reached for comment by Montclair Local, Johnson said, “I’m limited in what I can say before the show airs.”
Along with Johnson, the hour-long show will spotlight political activist, scholar and author Angela Davis. The genealogical and genetics work exploring her ancestry proves equally dramatic.
“This was a very rewarding episode to work on,” the show’s senior producer and director, Sabin Streeter, said about Johnson and Davis.
Streeter said that tracing their forebears melds into the history of the United States: “Genealogy is a very interesting way of personalizing history.”
For both guests, genealogists culled through massive amounts
of documents, some dating back hundreds of years.
From these paper pathways and DNA testing, subjects such as slavery, property, education, racism, censuses, family dynamics and blended families, love and laws and even the Mayflower emerge as essential for Johnson and Davis to find their roots.
“The show is meant to be a conversation between Dr. Gates and his guests,” Streeter said. “We put months and months of research into each of these shows. We’re really invested in it. As a producer, it’s really rewarding. Everybody on our team feels an intimate connection with our guests.”
Streeter added that Johnson “goes through a little journey on the show.”
Filming the interaction between Gates and Johnson in New York City, Streeter said: “There’s humor in it. He’s very quick on his feet.”
While it’s not included in the episode, Streeter recalled that the host and his guest chatted at length about their fondness for soul and R&B music.
In introducing the show, Gates said, “In this episode, we’ll meet activist Angela Davis and statesman Jeh Johnson, two African Americans who are about to discover their families are more diverse than they ever dreamed.
“Both had profound mysteries hidden in the closest branches of their family trees.”
For Jeh Johnson and for Angela Davis, Gates said, their ancestries embody “the American experience in all its diversity.”