Jesse Williams was surprised to learn that one of his ancestors played a significant role in the Salem witch trials in a Season 10 episode of "Finding Your Roots."
The secret was unearthed when Henry Louis Gates Jr., the PBS show's host, traced Williams' family tree.
During his conversation with the "Grey's Anatomy" star, Gates revealed that the actor's eighth great-grandfather, Joseph Herrick, was a constable in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s.
In this role, Herrick was tasked with arresting residents who were accused of crimes. In fact, he arrested two of the first women in the Salem witch trials: Sarah Osborne and Tituba.
“Whoa, wow, wow, OK,” Williams said upon hearing the news.
Osborne died in jail, but Tituba was later released.
Herrick's role in the trials was just beginning. Shortly afterwards, he took custody of two additional women who had been accused of witchcraft: Martha Corey and Sarah Good.
Both Corey and Good were executed by hanging. Gates then pointed out that Good was related to Herrick by marriage. He asked Williams what he thought of the role his ancestor played in her death and the trials at large.
“Part of me would suspect that caught up in the momentum and the chatter and gossip of this, there's probably some belief that it's right and you're serving and protecting," he said.
Williams also reflected on the personal connection between Herrick and Good.
"The fact that there's a relation does make me wonder if there's some kind of grudge or something that you just throw her in the pot with everybody else. Or you do believe it so much that unfortunately I've gotta take you in (for) the greater good. Yeah, this is wild," he said.
Gates wasn't done sharing information about Herrick, Williams' ancestor. Herrick died in 1718 and left behind an enslaved slave named Hannah, whom he had owned.
"Wow, I didn't know that. OK, that's really interesting. I can't say it's astonishing. It's brand new information I did not know," Williams said. "You know, you wonder, you always wonder, of course. It's also interesting that her name is almost my mom's name, Johanna. Wow."
Williams pondered the knowledge that his ancestor owned an enslaved person.
“He enslaved somebody. That's not a small, medium or large thing. That's a catastrophic, heinous thing. It’s complex and conflicting, which is life. That's part of it. I'm all the more proud of how far this family has come since then," he says.
Williams also learned that other ancestors, like his great-grandfather Isaac, had been born into slavery.
“But as the census shows, when freedom came, Isaac transformed his life,” Gates Jr. said. “He learned to read, became a landowner, married and raised 10 children.”
Williams said he planned to tell his own children about Isaac's life's transformation.
“Wow. Got a huge family. All this property. Can read and write. This is an incredible turn of events despite just unfathomable opposition. I feel lucky to be able to put a point on it and be able to name it and have a place on the map to point to something to explore further and share with my children," he said.
“It’s so much different to be able to have any level of precision, any level of actual naming, so that I can sit with it and think about it and say his name and take them with me now,” he continued. “It’s a big deal.”