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Radical black activist Angela Davis was visibly shocked when she learned that she was a descendant of the pilgrims on the Mayflower.
The self-avowed Marxist feminist and former black power activist in the 1970s appeared as a guest on the PBS series “Finding Your Roots” Tuesday. During her interview, host Henry Louis Gates, Jr. revealed that she is a descendant of one of the original passengers on the Mayflower, William Brewster.
Gates shared a clip of the segment on Twitter. “Any idea what you’re looking at?” he asks. “That is a list of the passengers on the Mayflower.”
Davis is in complete astonishment. “No, I can’t believe this,” she says, laughing and throwing her hands up. “No, my ancestors did not come here on the Mayflower,” she laughs again.
“Your ancestors came here on the Mayflower,” Gates repeats. “You are descended from one of the 101 people who sailed on the Mayflower.”
“No. No, no, no, no,” she responds, still laughing in disbelief. Finally, she collects herself. “Oof. That’s a little bit too much to deal with right now,” she says.
“Do you know what you’re looking at? That is a list of the passengers on the Mayflower.”
— Henry Louis Gates Jr (@HenryLouisGates) February 22, 2023
According to the episode, Davis’s father, Frank Davis, was legally the son of Mollie Spencer and Edward Davis. But Edward Davis was not his biological father; Spencer and Davis separated before he was born. Instead, Frank Davis was the son of Mollie Spencer and another white man named Murphy Jones. Experts were able to map Davis’s family line through Jones all the way back to William Brewster, an original signer of the Mayflower Compact and a leader of the Plymouth Colony.
Also in the episode, Davis’s maternal grandfather was a white Alabama lawyer and state legislator named John Austin Darden. Through Darden, she is the descendant of a man named Stephen Darden, a drummer born in Virginia who served in the Revolutionary War. Darden then moved to Georgia, where he owned a farm and at least 6 slaves.
“I always imagined my ancestors as the people who were enslaved,” Davis said. “My mind and my heart are swirling with all of these contradictory emotions.”
Davis has been a radical race activist for more than the last half-century. She began her instruction in Marxism from the time she began studying at Brandeis University. She became a student of the radical left-wing philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and also studied the work of the Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre. A member of both the Communist Party USA and the Black Panther Party, she spoke in Communist Cuba, the Soviet Union, and East Germany. She has also had a long career in academia, beginning as a professor at UCLA in 1969 and has taught at San Francisco State, UC Santa Cruz, Rutgers University, and Syracuse University. She also ran for Vice President as a member of the Communist Party in 1980 and 1984.
Davis, 79, has continued her career promoting radical politics. In 2011, she spoke at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in Philadelphia. She was an honorary co-chair of the first Women’s March in 2017. She has called for the abolition of prisons, and in a 2017 op-ed, she called for the abolition of the police “in the age of Trump.” She is also a family friend of Jussie Smollett. Her works on race and gender have also been featured in college courses, and lately, in the AP African-American Studies class that was banned by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis this year.