Actor Ed Norton Discovers His Ancestors Owned Slaves

John Simmons | January 6, 2023
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It appears Benedict Cumberbatch is not the only Hollywood superstar to find out some of his ancestors were slave owners.

“Glass Onion” and “Primal Fear” star Ed Norton discovered on an episode of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” with Obama pal Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that his third great-grandfather, John Winstead, owned seven slaves, including several young girls -- aged four, six, eight, nine, and ten -- who were born into slavery.

“When you go away from census counts and you personalize things, you’re talking about, possibly, a husband and wife with five girls, and these girls are slaves, born into slavery,” Norton said. “When you read, ‘slave, age eight,’ you just want to die.” 

Not to sound insensitive, but that’s a bit of an overreaction. If Norton said it made him feel disgusted or saddened, that would be more appropriate. But saying you want your life to be over because of something an ancestor did more than160 years ago is quite dramatic. But he's an actor.

But Norton also said he thinks that slavery still needs to be addressed in America at large.

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“It’s not a judgment on you and your own life, but it’s a judgment on the history of this country,” he added. “It needs to be acknowledged first and foremost, and then it needs to be contended with.”

Well here’s the good news: it was contended with, handily. In case Norton forgot, America acknowledged its slavery problem and then fought the bloodiest war ever waged on its soil from 1861-1865 to end it. 

If anyone discusses America’s history of slavery, they should discuss it as a vice to never commit again, but also as an example of how the people of the United States corrected a major contradiction within their borders and subsequently fought for freedom for all peoples.

Furthermore, if anyone like Norton sees that their forefathers owned slaves, that shouldn’t make them feel guilty (as Norton seems to). He -- and anyone else -- is not part of the problem that existed almost two centuries ago.

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