Thirty-nine lashes "well laid" on her bare back and an extension of her indentured servitude was Elizabeth Banks's punishment for "fornication & Bastardy with a negroe slave," according to a stark June 20, 1683, court document from York County, Va. Through the alchemy of celebrity and genealogy, that record and others led to the recent discovery that Banks, a free white woman despite her servitude, was the paternal ninth great-grandmother ofWanda Sykes, the ribald comedian and actress.
More than an intriguing boldface-name connection, it is a rare find even in a genealogy-crazed era in which Internet sites likeancestry.com, with more than 14 million users, and the popular NBC program"Who Do You Think You Are?"play on that fascination. Because slavery meant that their black ancestors were considered property and not people, most African-Americans are able to trace their roots in this country only back to the first quarter of the 19th century.
"This is an extraordinary case and the only such case that I know of in which it is possible to trace a black family rooted in freedom from the late 17th century to the present," said the historianIra Berlin, a professor at the University of Maryland known for his work on slavery and African-American history.
Mary Banks, the biracial child born to Elizabeth Banks around 1683, inherited her mother's free status, although she too was indentured. Mary appeared to have four children. There are many other unanswered questions, but the family grew, often as free people of color married or paired off with other free people of color.