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How LeVar Burton's “Finding Your Roots” Journey Made Him Feel Closer to the Father He Hadn't Seen 'in Decades'

The former 'Reading Rainbow' host and literacy advocate learned education played a key role in dad’s side of the family

<p>Rebecca Sapp/Getty</p> LeVar Burton in Santa Barbara, California in February 2023.

Rebecca Sapp/Getty

LeVar Burton in Santa Barbara, California in February 2023.

LeVar Burton's experience on Finding Your Roots was quite eye-opening.

The former Reading Rainbow host, literacy advocate and actor was estranged from his father, Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, "for decades" after his parents divorced when he was 11, according to Finding Your Roots host Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

But during the newest episode of the PBS series, LeVar, now 66, discovered that he and his dad have more in common than he'd originally thought.

In the episode, Gates revealed to LeVar that both his grandfather, Aaron C. Burton, and great grandfather, Pearl B. Burton, were school superintendents. Pearl, in particular, spent most of his adult life working in schools, helping to open a public school for African American children in Osceola, Arkansas — an institution that was established when roughly 20% of the state’s Black population was illiterate.

Related: LeVar Burton Reflects on His 'Roots' — and America's Path Forward: 'The Work Is Not Done'

“You inherited from this invisible presence in your life — a guy who disappears when you're 11 — but all of that educational heritage came with him,” Gates said, referring to LeVar's father.

LeVar, a longtime literacy advocate, was “ecstatic” to learn this, in addition to realizing that his great great grandfather on his dad’s side served as a representative in the Arkansas General Assembly thanks to the Reconstruction Act of 1867. The bill gave Black men in former Confederate states the right to vote two years after the Civil War ended.

“I can't even explain how it feels to get this information,” he explained. “It's like there have been pieces of me that have been missing. They've always been out there somewhere… Black people. We don't share family stories, you know? We're really hesitant.”

<p>PBS</p> Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with LeVar Burton in 'Finding Your Roots.'

PBS

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with LeVar Burton in 'Finding Your Roots.'

The Star Trek: Next Generation actor mentioned his mother, Erma Gene Christian, who was “so insistent that we not know about the trials and tribulations that she went through.”

“She was trying to protect us, but it leaves us in the dark about who we are,” LeVar explained. “This information is stuff that we need in order to feel whole.”

Related: LeVar Burton Immortalized with Figurine Designed to Encourage Kids to Read

LeVar's mom was a high school English teacher, whom he previously credited for his love for reading. He has also said the primary reason he decided to host the PBS Kids educational television series Reading Rainbow from 1983 to 2006 was to honor his late mother.

But realizing education also played such a strong role in his paternal line was “overwhelming” for the Star Trek: The Next Generation alum.

“Never in a million years would I ever have imagined that you would find information like this for my family... This is gonna reverberate for a while,” he added. “So powerful.”

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Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.

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