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The ancestors of Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. took different roads to New Orleans.
The ancestors of Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. took different roads to New Orleans. / David Yellen / USA WEEKEND

Growing the family tree ... online

ancestry.com. This site provides access to U.S. Census, birth, military and other records.
archives.gov/genealogy. Operated by the National Archives in Washington, D.C., this site has records of the Census, military, immigration and naturalization, among others.
usgenweb.org. Includes resources organized by state for a more locally focused approach.
23andme.com. DNA testing links you with relatives; plus, it can uncover health risks hidden in your genes.

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Newark Mayor Cory Booker had always known there had to have been white ancestors in his family’s past. He is African American but has a light complexion and blue-green eyes. No one was sure who those white ancestors were, just that they probably existed.

That was until 2002, when the handwritten memoir of his maternal grandfather, Limuary Jordan, was discovered. In his notes, Jordan recounted a day when his mother took him to the doctor. As they left the office, she revealed that the white doctor they had visited was actually his father.

Now the family knew when but still didn’t know who. Enter Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. “There were only three doctors alive when this would’ve happened,” says Gates, host and executive producer of Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (new season starts Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS, times may vary). “One was a veterinarian. One was too old. And that left the only other possibility — a man who we tracked to a direct male descendant.” Gates had the descendant’s DNA tested and revealed, on camera, that this white doctor was indeed Booker’s great-grandfather.

Booker could not help but cry.

Finding Your Roots is full of such moments. Take, for instance, when good friends and fellow New Orleanians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis find out they both had ancestors who first came to the South around 1850 (see below).

Over on Season 3 of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (Fridays, 8 p.m. ET/PT), another batch of celebrities — including Helen Hunt, Reba McEntire and Jason Sudeikis — discover interesting bits about their own family trees.

Fame isn’t a prerequisite. These are the types of discoveries regular Americans are making every day, with the help of online resources. They’re finding long-lost relatives and learning details of immigrant experiences.

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Unspoken reality

Traveling from Yokohama, Japan, on the ship Shinyo Maru in 1921 was a 25-year-old Japanese man and his 16-year-old bride headed to a new land. They settled in Sacramento and started a family. During World War II, the Ito family was moved to a Japanese internment camp. While there, Raymond Ito, now 66, was born. “If you know anything about Japanese culture, they’re very proud,” says Raymond’s wife, Pearl, who used Ancestry.com to discover more about her husband’s family’s experience in the camp. “It was never talked about. He knew he was born there, but not much else.”

As Pearl delved into the records, she found herself compelled by the smallest details: the number on the barracks where the Ito family stayed (3401D), the feelings of isolation these Japanese Americans must have felt. “They were surrounded by barbed wire; men with guns were guarding them,” she says. “Rights were taken away.”

Pearl, who is Caucasian, is determined to pass along all of the stories and facts she gathers. “We share any information we find with our sons and their children,” she says. “And it’s all carefully prepared, filed and saved for them to pass on to future generations.”

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