Radio Host Joe Madison Finds His Roots

Natalie McNeal

When radio show host and civil rights activist Joe Madison was asked to appear on the popular PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots, he jumped at the opportunity. “It’s a chance to learn information about your ancestors and keep them alive,” said Madison, a SiriusXM weekday host. “It’s something you can pass on to your children.” Without giving away too many spoilers for tonight’s episode airing at 8 p.m. EST. on PBS, let’s just say that Madison learned some eye-opening things about his heritage on the show. The show revealed that Madison had “roots” in states such as Alabama, where he didn’t know he had family, in multiple countries and as with most African Americans, across racial lines. Appropriately called “All in the Family,” Madison’s episode has enough twists and turns for a historical drama, complete with ancestors involved in two different wars. For instance, Madison - a former NAACP national political director - discovered that one of his grandfathers fought on behalf of the Confederacy. While doing promos for tonight’s show, Madison joked to his radio audience that he would join the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. “The first thing that I would propose is to get rid of all the confederate monuments,” Madison quipped. In all seriousness, Madison said he has no plans to join. “I don’t think that they’d accept my membership.” Even Henry Louis Gates Jr., host of Finding Your Roots ribbed Madison a bit on the show, noting that despite Madison’s nickname of The Black Eagle, and reputation for being one of the “blackest men” in satellite radio, he has a member of the Confederacy in his family tree. One of the more somber moments during the hourlong program is when Madison is visibly shaken after learning that one of his relatives was in the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Negro Male, referred to commonly as the Tuskegee Experiment. The unethical study lasted 40 years and allowed many Black men who had syphilis to go untreated and suffer, despite a cure being available. “This is where I broke down,” Madison said. “For years I studied the Tuskegee Experiment, and I never knew my ancestor was part of it.” Sabin Streeter, a senior producer on Finding Your Roots, said that he doesn’t recall anyone featured on the show with ties to the Tuskegee Experiment or a confederate veteran who fathered children with an African-American woman. “It’s a remarkable family tree that shows America tries to pretend that we are not a diverse society but we are,” Streeter said. “He has a very unusual family tree, but only unusual because it has so much in it. We’ve seen some of the elements in other African-American families.” Like other guests who appear on the show, Madison received a “Book of Life,” a journal of sorts compiling all of the years of research of his family’s genealogy. Madison keeps the book on a hard-to-reach shelf in his home and plans to make copies to share with his four children and grandchildren. “When you see the sacrifices people made and you see the relationships that they had with each other,” Madison said. “it just reinforces that we have more in common than we have differences.” — Natalie P. McNeal is the author of The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life.

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