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This is how Roseanne Cash unearthed a long-held family secret through DNA: ‘I want to fix things’

Looking back at Roseanne Cash's 2021 appearance on "Finding Your Roots," which led to an "incredible" revelation.
Roseanne Cash
Rosanne Cash unpacks her family's roots while chatting with the show's host, Henry Louis Gates Jr.YouTube

Rosanne Cash made a fascinating ancestral discovery on a 2021 episode of "Finding Your Roots," and in doing so, solved a long-held family mystery. The 68-year-old, who is the daughter of country legend Johnny Cash, appeared on the PBS show during its seventh season.

While discussing her early life, Cash recalled how her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash, had been the target of a racist hate campaign after a photo of her and her country star husband was published in the 1950s following his arrest for the possession of amphetamines.

After seeing a photo of her, people concluded that Vivian Cash was a Black woman, inciting racist uproar. Vivian Cash herself believed she was of Italian descent. At this time, the Supreme Court had yet to make its 1967 decision which rendered interracial marriage legal across the country.

Cash recalled the experience while talking with the show's host, Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“They didn’t talk to us about — you didn’t tell children what was going on back then. But I knew about it. It was in the paper, there was a lot of upset with my parents. My dad got into a public battle with the KKK. And so I knew about that and it was scary,” she said.

Vivian Cash addressed this time in her 2008 memoir, writing, “Johnny and I received death threats, and an already shameful situation was made infinitely worse." She said the "stress was unbearable" and that she "wanted to die."

Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes the turmoil as follows: "For over a year, Roseanne's family was harassed incessantly as white supremacists hoping to pushback against the Civil Rights movement sought to portray her parents as emblems of a society gone astray. Roseanne's father even went so fas to make a public statement that his wife was, in fact, white."

Vivian Cash corroborates the account her memoir, writing that she still "hates" when accusations are "dignified" with a response, like the one her first husband wrote. "To this day, I hate when accusations and threats from people like that are dignified with any response at all," Vivian Cash wrote.

However, as "Finding Your Roots's" forays into DNA tests and Census records showed, the truth was a bit more complicated.

The star soon learned that her mother did, in fact, have Black ancestors. Vivian Cash's paternal side was Sicilian. However, her great-great-grandmother on her mother's maternal side, Sarah A. Shields, was born into slavery. The team made the discovery after finding that Roseanne's great-great-grandfather, Sarah Shields' son, had been listed as mixed race on his Census record.

The news deeply touched Cash, who said, "It feels heartbreaking. I just kind of wish I could go back in time and fix things.”

In 1848, Sarah Shields' white father, William Bryant Shields, emancipated her and her eight siblings. William Bryant Shields shared his children with an unnamed black woman. All nine were born into slavery; all were freed at the same time.

When she heard this story, Cash said, “That is an incredible thing.”

Court records showed that Shields “paid a price” for his family, listing him as “not recognized in good society.”

Cash shared her thoughts about this man, who was her fourth great grandfather. "Clearly, he knew his own mind. He wasn't going to be swayed by the fact that he was excluded from good society. You have to think that he really deeply cared about this woman and these children," she said.

William Shields never married the unnamed black woman, and the “Finding Your Roots” team couldn’t uncover much about her. But in a dispute about he father's property, Sarah A. Shields revealed her mother had never been legally emancipated.

“There’s deep ancestral guilt about being a slaveholder, about my ancestors being slaveholders. But it’s slightly mitigated by the fact that I also had an ancestor who was enslaved. I mean, that's kind of a cheap and unfair way to put it,” Cash said.

Sarah Shields married a white man 10 years before she was emancipated. "How did Sarah get away with that?" Gates asked. "The answer likely lies with her father's support, not to mention his wealth, and his ability to sway county clerks who registered marriages in Alabama."

By the 1930s, Cash’s ancestors began to conceal their ancestry. The death records of Sarah Shields' children and grandchildren all had their race listed as white.

When asked what her mother would think about this fascinating ancestral discovery, Cash offered the following response.

“I think early in her life it would’ve been difficult particularly given what happened in 1965 and that whole horrible situation. I think by the end of her life she would've been interested that she had that complex of a background,” she said.

A DNA test also showed that Cash had an ancestor of African descent on her father's side.

Cash reflected on the discovery. “It means that in myself those qualities that I identify as tenacious or compassionate or loving or defiant, my own sense of freedom, that they have roots ... that there's a thread going back to where I got those things,” she said.

During the episode, Cash also learned that she is DNA cousins with another famous figure: actor Angela Bassett.  

“Its gonna take me a minute to take this in,” she said in response. “It makes me feel like a badass."