Winfrey knew her ancestors were slaves and the generations that came before her spent their lives not talking about the humiliation attached to that heritage.
What she didn't know was that she came from people who prized education, until Harvard professor and documentary filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. came knocking at her door.
Winfrey learned that her ancestor, Constantine Winfrey, was illiterate in the 1870 census. Ten years later, he's listed as literate.
After learning to read and write, Constantine entered into an agreement with a white man that he would pick 80 bales of cotton, or about 5,000 pounds, in exchange for 80 acres of land.
"Now, you could read black history textbooks from here to Timbuktu and you won't find a story like that," Gates said in an interview. "What you'll find, some white man beat the black man out of his 80 acres. You know, he got entered into this agreement in good faith and he got ripped off or he got burned out, but that's not the way it happened."
Gates explores the personal histories of his family and the families of Winfrey, comedian
Chris Tucker, musician Quincy Jones, astronaut Mae Jemison, Bishop T.D. Jakes, neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, actress Whoopi Goldberg and author and Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.
History jumps off the screen in vivid stories of people who went from slaves to homeowners.
One of Tucker's ancestors not only bought land, but sold it at reduced prices to his neighbors so they wouldn't leave their community and move north for more financial opportunities.
Goldberg discovered her ancestors went from illiterate slaves to successful homesteaders in Florida a task few completed.
Gates, whose previous PBS series includes "America: Beyond the Color Line" and "Wonders of the African World," spoke to TV critics earlier this month at the winter press tour in Pasadena. He brought with him both Jemison, who became the first woman of color to travel in space, and Jakes, the CEO and pastor of The Potter's House, a megachurch in Texas that he created in 1996 and which today has more than 30,000 members.
"One of the reasons I conceived of the series is to encourage young inner-city children to pursue their own genealogies," Gates said. "And you start in their family room. And that's free."
Gates said after knowing who your parents and grandparents are, you can go to the library or the Internet and look up federal census documents.
"You can take your family back at least to the 1850s, 1840s, just by using public documents that have been digitized," Gates said.
Going the extra step, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and ancestry.com will make available to those in Boys & Girls Clubs free genealogy searches. Gates also credits the Church of Latter-day Saints for its tireless work in making genealogy data available.
But the filmmaker went even further than genealogy searches in his quest. He did DNA testing on himself and all his subjects to discover exactly where they came from.
That test, which costs in the neighborhood of $300, comes into play at the end of the first night of the series. The admixture test tells you what percentage of your DNA is African, European, Native American or Asian.
Gates decided to combine genealogical analysis with DNA analysis. He then enlisted eight prominent African Americans from a variety of fields and traced their family trees back as far as the paper trail allowed.
And when the paper trail disappeared, Gates turned to DNA.
He felt this would inspire schoolchildren to become more interested in both history and science.
"It's one thing to hear a lecture about the double helix and Watson and Crick," Gates said. "It's another thing learning that if you swab yourself 20 times on each cheek, in three weeks, somebody will send you back a card saying 'Your ancestor came from Nigeria, and more specifically from the Ebo people.' That is a really exciting thing."
Gates asked each person in his program, "Where do you want to be from?"
"Oprah, of course, wants to be Zulu. She's announced to the world she's Zulu," Gates said. "Oprah is not Zulu. None of us are Zulu. There is no African American who comes from the Zulu people."
Only Jakes was correct when he said he was Ebo.
"I think it speaks to how accurately historical traditions are passed down through African families," Jakes said. "In the absence of our early ancestors being able to read and write, the verbal transition of information was the only applicable way to disseminate information.
"My ancestors had told us that our family had come from Nigeria and we were from the tribe Ebo. But this was verbally passed down from generation to generation. And Dr. Gates confirmed it through the research."
In Gates' case, his oral history proved to be wrong. The stories passed down in his family told they were related to a slave owner named Samuel Brady. When Gates found two male ancestors of Brady, their DNA was compared to his and he discovered they were not related.
In the wake of the DNA testing, he and other participants were left to ponder other questions about their concepts of race.
"When we did my father's admixture test, my father is 67 percent white," Gates said. "I'm 50 percent. What does that mean? Does that make me less black? I had to ask all those questions. I'm very secure in my African-American identity. It just means that African Americans and European Americans have been inextricably intertwined on the most intimate level from day one in this country."
And something else even more interesting came out in the DNA testing.
"It's standard for those of us who have white ancestry to have inherited that white ancestry from the male line," Gates said. "My Y chromosome goes back to Europe and my mitochondrial DNA goes back to Europe. And what that means is that I have a white female ancestor since colonial times. So that means some black man slept with some white woman between 1619 and 1750."
Jemison discovered that her ancestors were African American, Native American and Asian, with no percentage European.
"This program helped put American history in context," Jemison said. "One of the things that we don't recognize in U.S. history is how many different groups of people, like African Americans, Asians and Hispanics, blended together and met and did work outside of the context of having European Americans as mediators."
- For more information on this program, go to http://www.kqed.org and check the information on "African American Lives." After Feb. 9, the site will include information on how you can learn more about your own genealogy.
You can e-mail Susan Young at email@example.com or call (925) 416-4820.